LEAVE YOUR MARK: Cancer Crusader

— -- Early one Saturday morning in October, 44-year-old Mercedes Vázquez stands near the front of a long line of women that snakes out the lobby doors of the massive Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. She and the others are not there for a service, but for free medical screenings for such diseases as breast cancer, diabetes and HIV. The event is run by Dia de la Mujer Latina, a non-profit organization aimed at increasing awareness of how to prevent such diseases. Vazquez, who works in the kitchen of a Houston middle school, says she has never had a breast exam, let alone a mammogram. "I don't have enough money to visit a doctor," she says.

María Guadalupe Ramírez, a 54-year-old house cleaner, also receives a breast exam from a volunteer doctor at the event, as well as having her blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol checked. She admits that she and other Latinas benefit from such events because it helps them become better educated about disease prevention. "Our community is not really knowledgeable about the importance of health," she says. "This helps people learn."

Dashing all about the event talking to the women and coordinating volunteers is Dia de la Mujer Latina's 57-year-old founder and breast cancer survivor Venus Gines, who wears a bright pink shirt with the words, "La lucha continua pero no seremos vencidos." ("The fight continues but we will not be defeated.")

"Don't trust the doctors in this country because they use us Puerto Rican women as guinea pigs," Gines' mother, Rosa, repeatedly told her as she grew up between the Harlem area of New York City, Cayey, Puerto Rico, and in Miami, Florida. Rosa had been sterile since the age of 28 and she blamed U.S. doctors. "My mother was a victim of the sterilization abuse that took place in the 1940s and 1950s," says Gines. "She was very bitter about the medical system in this country and I grew up in that atmosphere."

Rosa's words had a strong impact on her daughter. Even after graduating college and landing a job as a flight attendant for Trans World Airlines (TWA), with full health insurance, Gines never went to a doctor for regular checkups, and if she got sick she just tried to get better on her own.

That all changed in 1992, when on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, Gines slipped and fell on a wet galley floor. Even though she was in severe pain, she refused to seek medical help until she was forced to do so by the plane's captain who insisted he wouldn't allow her to fly again until she did.

Gines, who was 41 at the time, was seen by a young doctor in the emergency room of a hospital near the Los Angeles airport. As he reviewed her paperwork, he expressed surprise that she had never had a clinical breast exam or a mammogram.

Despite her mother's words echoing in her ears, the doctor was able to convince her to agree to an exam right then. "He was cute so I let him," she jokes. He discovered a lump on her left breast and further tests revealed it was cancerous. "I thought I was going to die," she recalls.

Gines, a single mother, was most worried about her 11-year-old son, Richard. "Mommy is going to go heaven," she told him, "But I'm going to be watching you."

"Let's pray," he answered. "Dear God, I'll give you all my toys, even my GoBots, if you give me back my mommy."

Hearing her son's plea "made me realize that I had to be strong and fight for him," says Gines.

But in order to effectively fight the disease she needed information to help her decide what was the best course of treatment. One doctor had simply handed her a scientific article on breast cancer from a medical journal that she couldn't understand. Another told her she needed a double mastectomy, while another said her immune system was too weak to handle such a procedure. Thoroughly confused about what to do, Gines set about trying to research breast cancer on her own in Spanish, her native language. "I started calling and looking around and I really couldn't find a whole lot," she says. "It was frustrating."


Read more about Venus Gines' battle with breast cancer in teh December issue of Selecciones magazine, on newsstands November 17th. And learn about Venus' brilliant 'health fiestas' aimed at educating Latinas all over the United States and Puerto Rico about breast and cervical cancer.