Spanish conversation filled the conference rooms of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and Research Institute on a recent Saturday, as more than 80 people, employees of Elite Building Services and their friends and family, gathered to learn in their own language about cancer prevention and care.
Elite provides housekeeping services to several buildings at Christiana Care, and many of the employees speak Spanish as their first language. They spent the morning at the Cancer Center learning about breast and cervical cancer, the role of genetics, risk factors, cancer symptoms and other health information. Thirty nine women received mammograms, most paid for by Susan G. Komen Philadelphia, and 52 attendees were given combination screening for glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure, and cancer risk assessment.
“We are so excited about the turnout,’’ which exceeded expectations, said Nora Katurakes, manager of the Community Health Outreach & Education Department. “There is high energy and excitement. No one told them to come. They came because the message of caring for themselves was important.’’
Among those listening attentively were four members of the Figueroa family of Wilmington. The matriarch, Edna, 64, was treated at Christiana Care for breast cancer in 2005. She attended the screening event with daughters Madeline, 46, Maria, 41, and Mayte, 31. Maria is a housekeeper for Elite, and Mayte is assistant to the president.
“We came because my Mami is a cancer survivor, so we all wanted to get checked,’’ said Maria. She knows cancer is a risk in her family. Not only her mother, but also an aunt and uncle have had cancer. And, tearing up, she said her own son, now 21, had cancer, too, at age 11. He’s healthy today, but the experience was frightening, she said, and the family wants to make sure they understand how to minimize their risks.
The sisters said they were surprised and pleased that they could turn to Christiana Care for health information and guidance in Spanish. “I’m really happy, this is a really good opportunity for people,’’ said Madeline. In addition to mammograms, the family was able to speak with a licensed genetic counselor, Zohra Ali-Khan Catts, director of the Cancer Genetics Program, about the implications of their family history, what tests they need and how to mitigate their risks.
“I didn’t know they had all these interpreters here, that they had so much,’’ said Mayte Figueora. Years ago, she said, when Spanish-speaking parents needed medical help, they brought their children along to interpret. “These days, it’s much better,’’ she said.
The idea for the event began just weeks earlier, when Elite’s housekeeping supervisor, Guadalupe Castañeda, went to the Breast Center for a mammogram. “I had the opportunity to come, but I knew a lot of ladies don’t have that opportunity,’’ she said. Many Latinas forego medical screenings because they lack insurance or trust in medical systems, she says. The pressures of caring for families or just not knowing where to go are also barriers. “I felt bad to think I had something they didn’t. I wanted to do something so they could also have an opportunity to have mammograms,’’ Castañeda said.
She approached Joceline Valentin, a bilingual navigator in the Community Health Outreach & Education Department, whose position is funded by a community grant from Susan G Komen Philadelphia. Together, they hatched the idea for the screening event, picked a date and, for about three weeks, communicated by “desk messages,’’ — Castañeda, who works nights, left notes on Valentin’s desk for her to find in the morning, and vice versa. They created “save the date’’ cards that went out to all Elite employees inviting them to come and bring their friends. The whole event was pulled together in about a month.
“We started out with 15 women, and it kept increasing and increasing,’’ said Valentin, who was “ecstatic’’ about the program’s success. Calls came in right up until the day of the event, she said, and anyone who couldn’t fit her mammogram into the day’s schedule will be brought back in at a later date.
“I’m thankful to Christiana Care for doing this,’’ said Cheryl Ecton, president of Elite. “We’re not able to offer health insurance,’’ she said. “For our employees this is a huge thing to be able to do.’’ She hopes other companies follow suit by encouraging employees to take advantage of Christiana Care’s health events.
“This is amazing,’’ said Ronny Jimenez, operations manager for Elite, which has 23 employees working in the cancer center. “We never thought it would be something like this. Especially for the Hispanic communities, we have a high risk for cancer. Why? Our lifestyle, our food and the way we cook. And there are sometimes barriers of language, so we don’t get educated. Our company is grateful for our employees to have this opportunity.’’
The screening event is part of a broader outreach to the Hispanic community, which includes the upcoming 8th annual Latinas Fuertes Y Saludables (Latinas Strong and Healthy) conference, a free breast-health awareness event set for Oct. 26 at Bayard Middle School. Other efforts include a new Healthy Family Program, which is “designed to look at the total family and their home, and try to identify if there are areas they need assistance with,’’ Katurakes said. “We focus on cancer, but say I’m seeing a woman in the community and her husband is a diabetic and has stopped taking his medications. We do an assessment on the whole family and help identify areas where they need assistance.’’
The outreach work of the cancer center is aided by a group of Spanish-speaking women known as promotoras, or promoters of health education, who are trained in breast-care education. These women play a key role in reaching women and their families with life-saving information. Katurakes said Castañedas is “a good example of what a promotora would do — go talk to people and bring them in to us, to help meet their needs or provide direction.’’
Photo gallery: Breast health event for Latinas
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