Venus Gines had it made. Despite the fact that she was a single mother, she had a successful career as a flight attendant. She applied to law school at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill and was awarded a full scholarship. She found a nice home for her daughter Krista, 18, and son Richard, 11. Life looked great.
And then she hurt her ankle.
But her ankle was the least of her problems. On recommendation of her doctor, Venus underwent a clinical breast exam and a lump was found. After a biopsy, a nurse called from the doctor's office and told her, "I wish I could say it was benign."
Venus withdrew from law school, thinking her life was over.
"Cancer is a horrific experience to anyone. To the Latina, cancer is a death sentence," Venus told a group of women Monday night at the Buena Vista Regional Medical Center classroom. Venus' appearance was sponsored by the American Cancer Society and BVRMC.
There are 11 million Latinas in the United States with no health insurance. That fact, compounded with language barriers and the natural modesty Latinas have about their bodies, isolates Latina women from the health resources they need.
Venus' story before her cancer is almost a rags-to-riches scenario. Born in Spanish Harlem in New York, she said that preventive medicine was unknown.
It was not the fact that she is a woman and had cancer that Venus found so terrifying. It was the fact that she was a Latina woman with cancer. Venus was afraid of the intimidatingly huge medical establishment.
"My whole world fell apart when I found out that the results were positive," Venus said. She gave up and prepared to die.
It was only after she heard her son praying for her that she decided to do something.
"That was what triggered my energy, my strength, to fight this cancer," Venus said.
For starters, virtually none of the materials that Venus asked for were printed in Spanish. She was fluent in both languages, she began to wonder what resources other Latina women had.
Venus went to Washington and testified before a government panel where she blasted the medical establishment for having no information in Spanish. "Not having cultural competent health care can be a barrier," Venus said. She went to graduate school where she did breast cancer research, and helped to produce picture books in both Spanish and English telling men and women about prostrate and breast cancer.
Venus has worked to bring affordable health care to Latina women in the United States. She persuaded the Mexican consulate in Atlanta to turn a local shopping center into a health festival - complete with traditional mariachi bands. Venus called it El Dia de la Mujer Latina. The name stuck.
Today, Venus carries her message to Latina women throughout the country. Dia de la Mujer Latina has become a standard project of the American Cancer Society, the Mexican Consulate, Latino organizations, and clinics. The program uses a festival setting to give Latinas free breast and cervical cancer education screening, HIV tests, vision tests, STD tests, diabetes screening, and pregnancy tests as well as domestic abuse help.
The festival has helped to shatter the barriers that until recently stood between Latina women and adequate health care.
With the medical information gathered at the festivals, Venus is helping establish a baseline to learn what can be done to serve Latina women better.
"We're creating a system now where we're gathering data," Venus said. "Now we'll go back to Washington with numbers which is what they need."
Once she gets the federal government's attention- and funding - Venus hopes to develop a "patient navigation" system in which a health mentor helps Latina women through the health-care process.
For further information about women's health issues, contact Cheryl Lyon, BV Public Health, at 712-749-2548.