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St. Petersburg Times

Woman Becomes A Voice Of Support


21 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

TAMPA - Melba Martinez needed no translation for the word "cancer" a decade ago. It's the same in English as her native tongue, Spanish. The images it conjured translated as well: the dying men in the VA hospital where she worked, frail, losing hair, alone.

The questions that followed caught in her throat, mixed with fear and dread.

Am I going to die? What should I do? Should I try radiation, chemotherapy, surgery?

She spoke little English. She got by during her appointments with the patience of her doctor and occasionally accompanied by a bilingual friend.

"If the doctor didn't understand my accent, sometimes I didn't ask questions because I got so frustrated," Martinez said, recalling.

In the weeks that followed, Martinez looked for materials on breast cancer in Spanish, but couldn't find any. She read information in English, a dictionary in hand, helped by the English classes she took growing up in Puerto Rico.

She asked the American Cancer Society for a counselor. But it offered no Spanish speakers.

"I thought, "When I get better, I'm going to volunteer,"' Martinez said.

Ten years later, what Martinez calls "volunteering," many would call a full-time job.

She has launched the area's first support group in Tampa for Hispanic women with breast cancer, a group that sprouted two branches last year, one in Clearwater and one in Brandon.

And this spring, with the first-ever grant of its kind in the nation from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Martinez is putting together an oncology camp for Hispanic women with breast cancer at the Rotary's Camp Florida in Brandon. It's called Campamento Alegria, or Camp Happiness.

With her own cancer in remission, still working full time, Martinez takes panicked phone calls at midnight, makes spur-of-the-moment hospital visits to group members.

Her doctors told her, for her own health, she needs to slow down.

"But telling me to leave the group is like cutting off an arm or a leg," Martinez says.

A roomful of emotion

The women trickle in a few at a time and greet each other with hugs and kisses.

A few moments later, as Martinez wraps up old business and settles who will bring food next time, she asks the women what they were thankful for last year, what they want in the new one.

They go around this small conference room at St. Joseph's Cancer Institute: the woman in the business suit, the older ladies in colorful sweaters and slacks, the blue jean-clad daughters of survivors.

Eyes turn moist. Smiles flicker. Everything is said in Spanish. They speak of their faith in God, MRI results, the peaceful passing of fellow friends, the hope for good health.

"If we have our health, we have everything in life," says Alba Corella, 53, who is originally from Ecuador. "After beating cancer, I can handle any battle in my life."

Corella, of Tampa, was one of the first women to join the group after it started in August 2002.

"When I went the first time to the support group in the beginning, I felt sad and I didn't want to speak," Corella said after the meeting. "But with all the people with the same problem and from the same culture, it was easier to speak with them."

Her reaction is common, Martinez says. The new women arrive shy, sitting in the back after finding the group through fliers at hospitals, treatment centers and doctors' offices.

By the second monthly meeting, they arrive with other group members, laughing and sharing.

Martinez provides reading material on cancer in Spanish, items she's ordered from Miami and Puerto Rico. She invites speakers and physicians to talk in Spanish on treatments, surgeries and nutrition.

For fun, she organizes birthday parties for the women and their families, who emigrated from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Spain, Honduras, but mostly Cuba and Colombia.

"I've gone to other support groups, but this one is really more family oriented," said Mildred Vazquez, 42, of Tampa, a cancer survivor. Vazquez, who was born in Puerto Rico but moved to New Jersey at the age of 7, feels more fluent in English than Spanish.

But the warmth and cultural familiarity of the group draws her back.

"It's very warm," said Vazquez, who brought her mother to a meeting. "These women walk in and it's a party, like they haven't gone through anything. My mom was shocked. She wants to go back."

Someone to talk to

The calls come at all hours of the day and night.

"Melba, my mom is in the hospital," one young man told her a few weeks ago . "She's very depressed. She's not talking to us anymore. I know she'll listen to you. You are my last hope."

Martinez reached out to other Hispanic women with cancer in 1997 when she started to volunteer for the American Cancer Society. Officials gave her their Spanish-speaking clients.

Martinez brought them materials in Spanish that the women couldn't find - on mastectomy, lumpectomy, chemotherapy and post-operative bras.

"They were so appreciative, and they'd talk and talk and talk," Martinez said. "Finally, they had someone they could talk to."

Husbands confided in her about the sadness of their wives pulling away after surgery. Some women asked Martinez if there were others they could talk to in Spanish. Martinez decided to start a support group.

She found a supportive contact at the American Cancer Society in 2002 who told her the society could help with materials and fliers, but she had to run the group.

Martinez held the first meeting at St. Joseph's in August 2002 with five other women. Each month, the numbers grew. Today the Tampa group - called LUNA, Latinas Unidas por un Nuevo Amanecer, or Latinas United for a New Awakening - claims about 70 members.

But within the past six months, groups started in Brandon and Clearwater.

Alma Flores, director of LUNA de Pinellas, launched monthly group meetings in Clearwater in October. Her eight members come from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Puerto Rico.

"Spanish women are very isolated," Flores said. "There is a language barrier, they are consumed with family."

Not finding information or services in Spanish, the women end up stuck with large bills. One woman, not knowing about a program covering the uninsured, paid $3,000 for a procedure.

"If they don't have the connection with someone (who speaks Spanish), no one explains it to them," she said. "It's hard for them."

Marilyn Chacha, 49, says Hispanics have few places to turn for help in Brandon.

Chacha, who moved to the United States from Ecuador at age 7, started another cancer support group in August in Brandon after commuting to Martinez's Tampa meetings.

Her group - called Fortaleza y Esperanza, or Strength and Hope - counts 15 members, men and women, all Hispanic, survivors of any form of cancer. Members trace their heritage to Puerto Rico, Mexico and Costa Rica.

Chacha wants to start another branch in south Hillsborough county, for Mexican women in the migrant farmworker population around Wimauma.

Word needs to get out to Hispanics about the groups and about self-screening, Martinez says. Though breast cancer is diagnosed about 40 percent less often among Hispanic women compared with other women, it usually is diagnosed at a later stage, according to the American Cancer Society.

First camp of its kind

At first, members of the group joined English-speaking cancer survivors at a special Niagara Falls camp. But the DJ didn't play salsa, and the women didn't like the food. On comedian night, they laughed nervously, but didn't understand the jokes, all in English.

Martinez wanted a camp for Spanish-speaking survivors, but she had no money. She applied to the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation for a grant. They agreed to give $20,000 for the gathering that will run May 20-22 at the Rotary's Camp Florida in Brandon.

"To the best we've been able to research, it's the first Hispanic cancer camp in the whole country," said Robert Eschenfelder, president of the foundation's Florida Suncoast affiliate.

The camp is free to the participants. It offers two nights of stay in dormitory-style cabins and includes day-long educational sessions, stress management, health and beauty activities like massages, nail and hair work; and outdoor events.

Martinez expects 80 breast cancer survivors to attend. The application deadline is March 18. She hopes it gives the women a chance to relax.

As for her doctors' advice to take time off from the group, she plans to ignore it. "(The group) keeps me going," Martinez said. "I don't care what they say."

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