As a child, and into adulthood, all Rosalina Felipe knew when it came to breast cancer, a disease that affects 1 in 8 women in the U.S., were half-truths such as breast cancer solely occurring in women 40 and up or with a family history of the disease.
Now, at 29, and in remission more than a year after receiving her hormone-positive breast cancer diagnosis, Felipe knows more about the cancer than she would’ve ever liked to.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Felipe grew up in a Latino, Catholic family consisting of her parents, two brothers and an abundance of cousins. She says that she had fairly strict parents and wasn’t allowed to hang out much with friends.
“I’m very fortunate to have cousins my age,” Felipe said. “I have three other cousins that are also 29 years old and we would hang out a lot. We all lived about five minutes from each other, so that was really nice. Growing up, instead of having a big group of friends, my friends were my cousins.”
Felipe attended college close to home —approximately 15 minutes away. In 2015, she graduated from The College of New Jersey with a marketing degree and, shortly after, left her old life behind.
“After college, I decided to move across the country to Seattle. And I made the move even though my parents did not accept that, [and] they were really upset with me,” Felipe said as she laughed. “But, I told them that I needed to do it because I wanted to learn about myself. I wanted to be independent. I felt like that was the only way for me to spread out my wings and learn the ropes of life and learn about myself, which I don’t regret at all.”
During the five years she lived in the Emerald City, Felipe struggled to find a job that both paid well and evoked passion. She taught herself the ropes of digital marketing and social media and eventually found her footing with advertising and media agencies.
“I worked at my first agency for one year and then I got recruited from another, which is where I felt, in my eyes, like I made it,” Felipe said. “I was able to increase my salary by $20,000. It was in downtown Seattle, only a 15-minute bus ride from where I lived, which was amazing. And I felt like everything was right.”
Felipe even met her current boyfriend and partner, Brian.
The two were together for two years before they received official news in February 2021 from doctors that Felipe had breast cancer. A year prior, Felipe had found a lump in her breast, but hoped it might be due to hormonal issues or her period. Initially, she delayed calling her doctor. But, when she noticed a red pimple on the same breast, she finally went in.
Felipe was sent for an ultrasound at the University of Washington Medical Center, and at 28 years old, received the unfortunate news that she had hormone-positive breast cancer.
“At that moment, it was crazy. I kind of blacked out. I was breathing really hard, and I was walking and pacing back and forth,” Felipe recalled. “And when they told me the diagnosis, I didn’t know what that meant other than [thinking] I was going to f***ing die.”
Prior to receiving her diagnosis, the couple talked about moving to Los Angeles, and the diagnosis pushed the issue. Once in LA, Felipe sought out a second opinion.
“I felt the need to move somewhere else,” Felipe stressed. “I needed to have a fresh, new start, even though I still had to face this horrible thing that I had in my life. Then, when I moved to LA with my partner, I scouted new doctors and I would say that seeking a second opinion was the best thing that I could have done. I am in the best care.”
A year and eight months since her life was tilted on its axis, Felipe has undergone a mastectomy, radiation treatments, breast reconstruction and lymph node dissection to combat the cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. Somehow, among all of that, she managed to create her own community and safe haven in the form of one-of-a-kind podcast called Too Young For This Sh*t.
The podcast content covers breast cancer, with new episodes posted on Thursdays. The show is hosted by Felipe and her friend Shauna O’Brien, who is also a breast cancer survivor and records her part of the podcast in New York. It offers support and resources for women under 40 with breast cancer, and with the podcast now in its second season, the hosts use it to document their survival, as well as highlight other Latinas and their own journeys through breast cancer.
“This season is a bit different from season one,” Felipe said. “Every episode, we ask ourselves what value we can provide with this topic, and our mission is always to empower, to educate, and to connect with our listeners.”
In addition to her work with the podcast, Felipe works as a senior digital analyst in LA and lives with her boyfriend and her pet corgi named Louie.
Fortunately, today Felipe’s doctors say she shows no evidence of breast cancer and she will continue to attend six-month check-ups, including a mammogram and MRI. And now on the other side of her diagnosis, Felipe makes it a point to get to know this new version of herself, every day.
“I try to live life to the fullest, the best that I can, and embrace some parts of who I used to be,” Felipe said. “I’m excited to create a new version of myself that I was too afraid to be before my diagnosis.”
CALÓ NEWS sat down with Felipe to discuss how her life has changed since her diagnosis, the podcast Too Young For This Sh*t and the stigmas surrounding cancer in the Latino community.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
ROSALINA FELIPE, A Latina, Helps Fellow Latinas Through Their Own Breast Cancer Journeys with Podcast, Too Young For This Sh*t
YOU MENTIONED THAT, IN YOUR LATINO FAMILY, YOU NEVER HEARD ABOUT STORIES OF YOUNG WOMEN DEALING WITH BREAST CANCER. HOW DID IT FEEL TO GO THROUGH SUCH A HARROWING EXPERIENCE WITHOUT ANY PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OF HOW TO HANDLE IT?
I was really angry. I was very frustrated. And I was the first in my family to be diagnosed, so feeling that was also pretty isolating and lonely, and I felt like I did something wrong. I mean, I didn’t really have prior education from my family about cancer in general or breast exams and all that. And I don’t want to blame my parents because that’s not what I’m trying to do, I know that they mean well. But I think if they had the proper education, that would go onto their children. Because when you’re young and living with your parents, what you know is from your parents and, obviously through schooling as well. But you learn a lot in your household.
I wish that my parents had had proper knowledge or were really adamant about [cancer]. In terms of being young, all I knew about breast cancer was that it happens more in women over 40 and that, if you have a family history [of breast cancer], you are at a greater risk of getting breast cancer. But from what I’ve read online, yes, that’s true, but most women, about 80 to 85%, get breast cancer with no family history. So, I wish, if I would have known that, maybe I would have taken more precautions, or told my doctor to check my breasts. When I went to my doctor in my twenties, you get a pap smear and they’re always like, ‘You need to go get your pap smear’ or ‘You’re due for one.’ They insist on it. But no doctor, except for one, had mentioned, ‘Hey, you should [get] a breast exam.’ Only one asked me if I would like to do a breast exam, that was the only time. So, I feel, and I believe, that doctors [should be] more proactive with [asking you if you want to] do a breast exam. I feel like it’s better to be safer than sorry. We need to be more proactive.
Once I got my diagnosis, I didn’t want anyone else to know. That was a very, very personal thing. I grew up with my mom who wants things to be private. She doesn’t like when people know about certain things. For me, that’s how I grew up with a Hispanic mother. When I got my period, she didn’t want my brothers to know. So, imagine my diagnosis. She wanted to
only tell people that she trusted. She wanted to tell her sisters because she trusts them, and she wanted to tell people who would pray for me because I lived in a Catholic household. So, at that time, really early on in my diagnosis, it was only my immediate family, my partner, my partner’s parents, my mom, and who she chose to tell. And until I got a plan in place when I had a surgery date, I became a little bit more comfortable and I sent out a group text to my cousins and told them what happened. I did that because, one, if I were in their shoes, I would want to know. And two, what frustrates me the most is that Latinos don’t talk about things that are happening in our lives that are health-related. We try to keep that private and shove it under the rug and, for me, I felt the need to break that. I sent the text and I was flooded with really great messages.
So, that was the first step in talking about my diagnosis. In general, I’m still very private. If you meet me, I’m still very private about my diagnosis. If I meet new friends, that’s not the first thing that I want them to know. I don’t want everyone to know, either. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, here’s Rosalina, she went through this,’ because I’m more than that. I have a f***ing personality.
HOW DID YOUR DIAGNOSIS CHANGE THE TRAJECTORY OF YOUR LIFE? DID IT CHANGE YOUR LIFESTYLE?
Yes, it did. Before breast cancer, I was living a carefree lifestyle. Also, before the pandemic, I would go to the bars almost every weekend with my friends. We’d have a few drinks here and there, and that was the lifestyle I had before. But now I don’t do that. I maybe do that once or twice a month. I focus more on my well-being. I’m more conscious about the food I eat and about things like, ‘OK, if I’m going to drink alcohol today, I shouldn’t drink it the next day.’ In my perspective, I don’t want someone to take this experience or take what I say as meaning that they have to do these things. It’s just who I am and how I function. I need to kind of be in control. I’m trying to be more in control of things around me, my boundaries, what I eat, and just really taking care of my health. So, I would say yes, it has changed in that perspective.
WAS IT CHALLENGING TO BOND WITH OTHERS AFTER YOUR DIAGNOSIS?
I didn’t have anyone in my family or anyone in my circle that went through this, so I felt really alone. The doctors are more concerned about taking the tumor out and [creating] a plan. But I felt that they didn’t provide me with any resources for any AYAs – adolescents and young adults– who went through cancer or breast cancer. They didn’t provide me with a support group, so I felt like I had to do that on my own and search online. And it was, for me personally, really difficult. I was like, ‘Oh, is this just too rare? That young women just don’t talk about it or there aren’t any support groups?’ It was really hard for me. And then even when I did eventually go onto Facebook and found Facebook groups that were more geared to, I guess, quote–unquote young women, it still felt really weird for me. I didn’t feel like I could connect with someone over a Facebook group, you know? And I also felt like, in the Facebook groups, you just ask questions, and then that’s it, no one else will follow up with you. They can through a personal DM (direct message), but that’s it. So, I didn’t feel connected or like I related to that.
YOU ARE THE CO-HOST OF A BREAST CANCER PODCAST, TOO YOUNG FOR THIS SH*T (TYFTS). HOW DID IT START AND WHAT IS ITS MISSION?
Personally, I’m a spiritual person. And so when I say this, it’s because it’s how I felt. After my single mastectomy surgery, I felt like I got a sign from the universe to start my own community. I don’t know why. I just woke up and I felt something in my gut, in my heart, that was pushing me. I needed to do this. This is what I needed to do. So, I decided to [create] a podcast, but I didn’t want to do it alone. I felt like it would be more interesting and nice to have someone else going through a similar journey [to what] I was going through. That’s when I went back to the Facebook support groups and put out a post saying that I was looking for a co-host, and that’s where I found Shauna, and both of us actually had a similar diagnosis. Within the same week, we started chemotherapy together. And even though she lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles, we were still going through it together.
The mission [of TYFTS] is to create a supportive community for young women who’ve been affected by breast cancer. And it’s for women to not feel alone or isolated in this journey. Shauna and I document our life experiences and take the listener through what we are going through, from finding the lump, to reasons why we chose this surgery, to what our doctors say, and to how we’re feeling. Just anything that you can think of. We want to be super raw and authentic about our experiences.
HOW HAS HAVING BREAST CANCER AFFECTED YOUR MENTAL HEALTH? HAS RECOUNTING YOUR JOURNEY ON TYFTS BEEN DIFFICULT? IN WHAT WAYS HAS TYFTS HELPED?
I would say that, in the beginning, it for sure really [messed] me up, but I had already had a therapist. I had started therapy, actually, in September of 2020, so this was good because she really helped me. I saw her every week, once a week, so that really helped me to digest and to just talk about what the f*** I was feeling at the time. I felt that that helped with my mental health. But, going through this journey alone, you feel isolated and you feel like, ‘Why me? Why did this happen to me?’ That still f***ed me up for a long time. And it wasn’t until I met Shauna that I felt a little bit at ease that there was someone who understood what I was going through. There’s someone who understands that this is not easy. And so, I felt heard. But, after I completed treatment, chemotherapy and radiation, I was in a really dark place. So, when I completed those treatments, I felt like, ‘That’s it. I want to live my life, I don’t want to live in this misery.’ And I’m still, internally, the person I used to be in terms of my personality and my outlook on life. Trying to find me again and also having a support system, someone who was going through the journey with me, having a therapist, and having all these people around really did help with my mental health.
Before we record an episode, sometimes I just cry because I have to let it out before I go on the microphone. And I edit the podcast, so that is also really hard. I would say the hardest part for me, where I literally had to shut my laptop and walk away, was [recounting] when my brother, George, was here and it was the day of my mastectomy surgery. I didn’t cry until I saw him and I cried in his arms and he told me, ‘This is for your health. You’re doing the right thing for your health.’ And when I was editing the podcast, that episode, I lost it.
It’s a healthy outlet for me. In terms of mental health, it definitely helped to talk about the process, reprocessing everything that happened. And I felt that I became a better person after it, in terms of educating myself. For example, at the beginning of my diagnosis, I didn’t know anything about breast cancer and I could see the growth that I had. It’s really nice to see that growth, like this woman didn’t know anything and now she knows her diagnosis in and out, she knows all of the terminologies of her diagnosis. She knows what this means, she knows what that means. And so I’m really proud, actually. I’m pretty proud of myself. And the other part is the community. I know that I’m doing something right, I know that I’m doing something impactful for young women also going through this. Sometimes, [Shauna and I] go through our Instagram messages [and young women are] saying that they love the podcast or they can’t believe they found the podcast and, ‘Oh, I relate to this so much.’ And it’s really great hearing that and knowing that I’m doing something positive or great for these women and I feel like I’ve found a part of my purpose, you know? I definitely do feel like I have other purposes, but I definitely think this is one of them.
HOW DID YOUR DIAGNOSIS AFFECT YOUR LOVED ONES AND YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEM?
My parents and my brothers were all devastated. In season two [of TYFTS], Shauna and I interviewed our siblings. So, we got to hear their perspective and, just listening to what they had to say, it’s not just me that has to go through this, it’s also the people around me that had to go through it. And it’s hard. It’s hard for them to see their loved ones go through something super traumatic, and super horrible, and, sometimes, they feel hopeless. Sometimes they don’t know what to say. My brother, George, when he saw me in the chemo infusion chair, he said he wanted to switch places with me. So, it’s not just you that has to go through this. Your loved ones also really go through it, as well.
ARE THERE STIGMAS AROUND CANCER WITHIN THE LATINO COMMUNITY? HOW DO YOU AND TYFTS PLAN TO BREAK THOSE STIGMAS?
Yes! In my experience, Latinos don’t talk about cancer enough and we don’t discuss life-threatening health issues. I feel that if we were to speak more about it and be more proactive and know the risk and know it can happen to anyone, we would be more educated and make an effort to make our health more of a priority. I definitely think that, financially, that could also be an effect too. I feel that Latinos, especially those who came to the U.S. when they were young and had to work their asses off, some of them don’t have health insurance. So, I think it’s also hard when they [feel], ‘Well, I don’t have health insurance, I can’t go to the doctor.’
One thing that I feel that I’m already doing [to break the stigma is] just talking about cancer. As a Latina, to be honest, I don’t really see many who do talk about their cancer experience. So, I think I’m already in that process of trying to break the stigma of speaking about breast cancer and really being raw and authentic about my experiences and highlighting different Latinas who are also going through this. In season two, I really wanted to reach out, even if they’re half-Latina, to three other [Latinas with breast cancer]. So, slowly, but surely, I’m trying to talk more about it. I definitely have different ideas for the future, but, again, we just started and we haven’t even completed a year of our podcast yet, which will be in November. So, I definitely want to do more. I feel like talking about it and bringing awareness is the first step.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO OTHER LATINAS, OR OTHER WOMEN, WHO MIGHT FEEL LIKE THEY HAVE BREAST CANCER, BUT ARE TOO NERVOUS TO FIND OUT?
Not all lumps are cancerous. They could be benign, they could be cysts. So, in general, if you do find something abnormal about your breast, whether it’s a lump, an inverted nipple or discharge or whatever it is, you’re the one who’s in your own body, you’re the one who has to live with this, essentially. You have to make that choice whether or not you want to see the doctor, but it’s not going to go away. And the thought of wondering ‘What if,’ it’s just going to haunt you even more. The biggest, most empowering thing is when women take efforts to check on their health or check on things that are not normal in their body. I wish that I was more of that person in the beginning, and I’ll definitely say that, once you find something that’s not normal and take action, I think people should be more proud of themselves for doing that and advocating for themselves and trying to reach for the doctor – all of that.
That should be more noticeable, right? We need to applaud people for taking action, and for making their health a priority. I don’t think it’s recognized and talked about enough. So I would say it’s about you, it’s about your health and you need to remember that. Even if you get opinions from other people, they’re not in your body, they don’t know how it looks and they don’t know how it feels. They don’t know what’s not normal and what’s normal within your body, you are the person that should advocate and it shouldn’t be a shameful thing.
FOR OTHER YOUNG LATINAS WHO MIGHT BE EXPERIENCING A DIAGNOSIS OF BREAST CANCER, WHAT ADVICE MIGHT YOU HAVE FOR THEM AS SOMEONE WHO DIDN’T HAVE MANY RESOURCES WHEN YOU WERE FIRST DIAGNOSED? ARE THERE ANY CURRENT RESOURCES YOU RECOMMEND?
I would say that the first thing is to have a support system and to start educating yourself on your diagnosis. Even if you have to go to the doctor many times to understand what the hell they’re talking about, because that’s what I had to do. Don’t feel shameful about doing that. Pick out other opinions within the medical field if you feel that you’re not being heard by your doctors. At the end of the day, this is a process, this is a journey and don’t beat yourself up when you feel like you haven’t made progress, or when you feel like you’re deteriorating [in terms of] your life or how you look. It takes time to feel like yourself again and it takes time to get used to your new normal. But I would say, in my experience, I am in a way better place right now than I was last year, and I think it’s just because of time and making the effort to go through a healing journey, making myself a priority and looking for other women or other things that could help me within my experience. For example, I hired a spiritual coach and she’s been absolutely freaking amazing. She’s Latina and she’s really been helping me in my life and finding myself again. I would love to hug everyone who is going through this and know that they are not alone. They could always feel free to reach out to me as well because I would probably be the first person that would pick up the phone and talk for hours. I have a soft spot for young women going through this, and I also have a soft spot for Latinas who are going through this, as well. I would drop everything to help.
And [Shauna and I] created a resources page on the TYFTS website, where we outline three different brackets. One of them is breast cancer education, where we link reputable sites, such as .gov or .org, that provide education on different topics from surgery, treatments, and how to perform a self-breast exam to radiation. I created the resource page because when I was diagnosed, for one, you’re already going through a horrible thing and you need to schedule all these appointments, you need to do all these things. And what I wish I had is exactly what I created; this place where you don’t need to search and do all the work because all of the work has been done, all you need to do is click through the links. The other part is the non-profit organizations that we support. There are a ton that I found over the past year that provide super great resources and in-person events, which is super great. And lastly, which is most important and something that I wish I had early on in my diagnosis, is a section of non-profit organizations that provide financial assistance, whether you’re going through treatment or whether they send you a care package. I wish that I had those links [when I was diagnosed] because it’s really hard to find them online, you really need to dig to find those that are active because there are a few that aren’t active anymore. The [TYFTS] website has all of those resources.