I came to the United States from Guatemala in 2005. Like millions of immigrants, I came to this country with hopes and dreams of creating a better life for my family and myself. As I settled into my new home and culture, I discovered that this great country was everything I could have hoped for. Yes, there were obstacles along the way, as is the case for all immigrants, but I quickly developed friendships and a strong support network because I have always enjoyed "serving my community."
What I was not prepared for, and I don't think anyone ever is, was for my life to change suddenly on February 2, 2018. I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer initially after a surgical biopsy. My grandmother and my mother both died of cancer, so as a mother of two girls, I was immediately worried. I had genetic testing, and it turned out that I was BRCA1 positive. A few weeks later, I had surgical biopsies, and it turned out that I was already in Stage 3A and Grade 3 because the cancer cells were spreading very rapidly.
I underwent a double mastectomy and the removal of 17 lymph nodes on May 22, 2018. I then went through 40 chemotherapy sessions, 30 radiation treatments, and eight surgeries. Like any cancer patient, I experienced some complications. However, all of that is resolved now.
Anyone who has gone through cancer can tell you that there will be good days and bad days, and I certainly had my share of both. I have always believed that living with cancer is like riding an emotional roller coaster. What I always tell myself is to forget the bad days and remember how enriching this process has been for me. The difficult days have taught me so much, and I just want to set an example for my daughters that no matter how challenging the circumstances, it depends on them to move forward.
After chemotherapy, I underwent cosmetic surgery to remove the most visible scars. It's a long process that is still ongoing in 2023, but what's important is that I started it, and it has helped me and given me the self-confidence to move forward. Although the pain was intense, I knew that the mind is more powerful than the body if you keep the faith. Faith can move mountains.
I share this story during Hispanic Heritage Month because people from my culture are unfortunately at greater risk of cancer. According to the CDC, 16 percent of Hispanic or Latino adults are in fair or poor health. Cancer is the leading cause of death among Hispanics in the United States, and one in three Hispanic women in the United States will get cancer at some point in their life, according to the American Cancer Society.
My Latino culture, especially women, often lack the education and tools to make lifestyle changes that can help prevent cancer. I was fortunate to find an organization in Texas called ROSAesROJO, which makes wellness and cancer prevention education accessible to Hispanic women and their families in the United States. They educate us on nutrition, mental health, and physical activity, using cultural humility and community care as part of their social innovation. They lead Hispanics to live healthier lives and reduce the incidence of chronic diseases, primarily cancer, among us.
Through my involvement with ROSAesROJO, I learned the importance of advocating for myself. I took a more active role in my health by taking steps to improve the length and quality of my life. This meant working with a program called Empowered Health, which helped me develop the skills, knowledge, and confidence to take an active role in my health and healthcare decisions. I am now able to help more people in my community and to spread the message that everything is possible when we combine faith, a positive mindset, seek tools, educate ourselves, and, most importantly, help others, because by helping someone else, our own problems diminish.
I am Lesly, a survivor, and I want to be an example for Hispanic women and immigrants who may be facing adversity. If you are reading this, remember that you are stronger than you imagine.
During this month, let's celebrate our culture and heritage, but also support health and wellness education for Hispanic women to prevent cancer and other chronic diseases.
About the Author
Lesly Cardona studied to be a teacher and is a mother of two daughters. She lives in Irving, Texas, and is from Guatemala.