Latinos Contra El Cancer operates in Los Angeles as a chapter of the American Cancer Society, and focuses on helping Latinos combat and survive cancer in communities like LA, where Latinos comprise 49% of the population.
The organization specializes in supporting Latinos suffering from cancer and helps them find medical and financial resources no matter immigration status or financial status, according to the group’s website. These resources range from hosting virtual meetings with health experts on topics – such as breast cancer, cancer screenings and coping with the loss of a loved one.
For Bibiana Martinez, a public health researcher and co-chair of Latinos Contra el Cancer, Hispanic Heritage Month offers an opportunity to consider Latinos and their health. Martinez, who was born and raised in Colombia, brings to her role more than seven years of experience in health services research, as well as a background in anthropology, human rights and reproductive health advocacy. For Latinos, she is a proponent of culturally-relevant treatments, including when it comes to dealing with cancer.
Cancer is the leading cause of death for Latinos living in the U.S. according to a recent report by the ACS. The study titled, “Cancer Facts & Figures for Hispanic/Latino People 2021-2023, reveals that 1-in-3 Latinos will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime; and 1-in-5 Latinos and 1-in-7 Latinas women will die from the disease.
In 2008, Martinez received her bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Florida and in 2011 she earned her master’s degree in Reproductive Health from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Martinez is currently a Ph.D. candidate studying health behavior research at the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, where her research focuses on cancer screening and prevention disparities among Latino and immigrant communities.
In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness month this month, the American Cancer Society is hosting a “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” walk in both LA and Santa Monica. The annual event raises money to support breast cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. If you are interested in volunteering or joining Latinos Contra el Cancer, contact Bibiana Martinez at email@example.com.
CALÓ NEWS interviewed Martinez to discuss cancer is the Latino community and how access to healthcare affects outcomes.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
BIBIANA MARTINEZ, 41, Los Angeles, Public Health Researcher and Co-Chair of Latinos Contra el Cancer, She/Her/Ella, Latina
WHAT IS THE VISION AND MISSION OF LATINOS CONTRA EL CANCER?
We try to increase awareness and ultimately prevent cancer in our communities. Latinos are disproportionately impacted by a number of different cancers and cancer is now the leading cause of death for Latinos. We want to be able to raise awareness, improve screening and make Latinos aware of the resources available to them. We have had some charlas de salud (health conversations), invited experts to speak about cancer and [createad] podcasts about issues affecting survivors. We have a newsletter that will go out soon. And we are hoping to have an in-person event later this year to continue our engagement with communities throughout LA and Southern California.
AS A DOCTORAL CANDIDATE IN HEALTH BEHAVIOR RESEARCH AT USC, WHAT IS THE MOST IMPACTFUL PART OF YOUR RESEARCH?
I’ve learned about geospatial analysis. I do a lot of analysis that is in small-level geographies. I learned that a lot of the data and information that we know about Latinos and cancer is either regional, county level, or, at best, at the city level. I’ve learned the importance of really understanding what is happening at smaller levels when it comes to Latinos and cancer and understanding the different trends in neighborhoods. This can help us identify and look at the factors that are affecting specific Latino communities and learn what is making them more prone to diseases like cancer.
Our communities are not just dealing with issues of income, education, other socioeconomic characteristics and immigration. They frequently deal with all of this at the same time. When we think about cancer prevention or cancer treatment, all of that is time-consuming. So if you are thinking about a person who is low-income and has more than one job, maybe they are also going to school, relying on public transportation and do not have health insurance. Maybe their English is not the best, and you ask them to go and get a mammogram or colonoscopy, which is super expensive. All of these things come together as barriers to people, even if they do want to access these things, they do not have the time. On top of that, there are things like health literacy, which brings up the question of how much our communities know about health guidelines. My dad told me that he had gotten three colonoscopies in a year-and-a-half and I told him, ‘Papi, a colonoscopy is [supposed to happen] once in every 10 years.’ That’s my dad and I’m a cancer researcher and he still does not understand what the guidelines are. So, what can be said about people who are less connected with cancer research? Lastly, there’s the issue of stress and stress-coping behaviors. Sadly, many stress-coping behaviors put us at higher risk of cancer, like smoking and drinking and having poor diets. In our Latinx communities, obesity is a risk factor for cancer.
MANY LATINOS ARE HESITANT ABOUT GOING TO THE DOCTOR. WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
There are some barriers, but it’s important to go to these annual checkups because cancer is treatable the earlier you catch it. So if you catch a very early situ cancer, which is cancer that is only in one place, [that means] it hasn’t spread. That’s a different situation than if you catch cancer that has spread throughout your body. Another reason why yearly checkups matter is because of the risk factors. By going to these checkups, you are getting the opportunity for doctors to catch any risk factors [you may have]. Maybe they notice that you have been smoking a lot and they can help you quit before it’s too late. Ultimately, you get to develop a relationship with your doctor. Building a relationship with your healthcare providers can really help our communities have more trust in these institutions and be more willing to do the follow-up recommendations for us to be healthier individuals.
IS CANCER PREVENTABLE?
Some cancers are completely preventable. For example, Latinas are three times more likely to have cervical cancer than white women. Penile cancer is also more common in Latinos. Both of these [diseases] are caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and there’s a vaccine against it. There’s a safe, widely available vaccine. Getting vaccinated is an easy way to prevent some cancers. We talk about getting certain screenings and mammographies, but I think there are other factors and behaviors we do not think about as much, such as using sunscreen. Latinos get very aggressive melanomas. Those are the [kind of behaviors] I think people do not connect with. People think that they do not need sunscreen, but we all need it. Sunscreen-use is cancer prevention. Healthy eating is cancer prevention. Physical activity is cancer prevention. It’s important to educate communities about these things. They might be thinking about some environmental cancer they have no control over, but there are a lot of things we can change in our everyday lives that help us be safer.
WHAT SHOULD BE THE PRIORITIES FOR DOCTORS, HOSPITALS AND CLINICS TO SUPPORT LATINOS DEALING WITH CANCER?
They should think about how they can capitalize on some of the assets that already exist within our communities, such as a promotoras de salud [health promoters]. I think [this position] connects a lot of the caregiving, the solidarity that already exists among our communities and the trust that is already there, too. When you get help from someone that looks like you, who talks like you and that can understand you culturally, it helps people feel that they can communicate better and confide in you.
HOW DID THE PANDEMIC IMPACT LATINOS WHEN IT COMES TO CANCER?
We know that the pandemic impacted Latinos disproportionately. Not only with Covid-19 cases, but also because there’s been a decrease in cancer screenings among Latinos. The American Cancer Society published a study recently looking at screening throughout the pandemic and screenings for Latinas on cervical cancer (which are pap-smears and mammograms) decreased. Latinos Contra el Cancer is still working on those campaigns to get people back to screening and on these health routines. We all need to do regular things to take care of ourselves and prevent cancer. Cancer does not only impact you, it impacts your whole family. So, when we are taking care of ourselves we are also caring for everyone else in our families and communities.