Earlier this month, I attended the historical marker unveiling for Gloria Casarez, one of Philadelphia’s foremost LGBTQ icons, who died of breast cancer in 2014. As I listened to poet and activist David Acosta speak about her life, I found myself getting very emotional.
When I decided to attend the ceremony, I wasn’t sure how I might react since I’ve been living with a secret for the past four months: I am waging my own fight against breast cancer, one that began this summer after I had my first mammogram in seven years.
Like many others, I had put off my screenings because of work and life — and then COVID-19 gave me another excuse not to go to the doctor. But this year, I promised my husband that once the City Council’s budget process was over in June, I would schedule my appointments.
I knew going into my mammogram that I had a small lump in my breast, but because it had never been painful, I put off getting screened. After the mammogram, I immediately had an ultrasound and a few days later, a biopsy confirmed my cancer. I was so mad at myself for waiting so long to have the lump checked out.
In August, I chose to have a mastectomy of my left breast. I thought that by making this choice, I’d be able to avoid chemo and radiation. After the surgery, I was devastated when my doctor told me that, to prevent future illness, the treatment plan had to be more aggressive. Even though I trusted my doctor, I went to Penn for a second opinion, hoping that they could tell me something different. I was determined to maintain my work schedule. Three days after I had my breast removed, I joined a Zoom meeting with my staff, never missing a beat in my duties as a City Councilmember.
Although I am currently cancer-free, I am now receiving chemo at Penn’s state-of-the-art facility and expect to start preventive radiation in a few weeks.
Throughout this experience, I have felt so fortunate to live in Philadelphia, where I received exceptional medical care. I had my initial testing at Temple University Hospital and have worked with Dr. Lisa Jablon at Einstein Medical Center, who performed my mastectomy; Dr. Sameer Patel from Fox Chase Cancer Center, who did my breast reconstruction; and Dr. Susan Domchek at Penn’s Perelman Center, who is overseeing my chemo and radiation.
My doctors tell me that by February, this entire experience may be in the rearview mirror. I feel lucky that even though I put off my mammogram, the cancer was caught early enough to be treated. I know this is not the case for everyone.
Originally, I planned to stay silent about my diagnosis until December, when my treatment should be complete. My decision was further cemented after I got a short haircut — in preparation for the wig I knew I’d have to wear when I lost my hair — and so many people commented on it. If people had so many opinions about my hair, what would they think of this? It scared me to expose something so personal about myself. Until recently, the only people who knew were my husband, mother, children, and sister-in-law. I didn’t tell my staff until I started chemotherapy in September.
But throughout the month of October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I heard so many women speak so bravely about their cancer. I thought about the women I know who have lost their battles with breast cancer: my gracious and loving sister-in law Lourdes Cintron Sanchez and Vivian Ortiz, the national president of the Congress for Puerto Rican women, and a family friend just last week.
I asked myself: What would Gloria Casarez do? I have always prided myself on being authentic and accessible. The more I listened to these other brave women talk, the guiltier I felt about not being honest about my own experiences.
That’s why I decided to tell my story now. I hope it will convince other women to get mammograms.
Throughout this experience, I have been especially concerned about Black and Latina women.
While Black women are just as likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer as white women, they are almost 40% more likely to die from the disease. And according to new research from Penn, Black women have nearly a threefold increased risk of triple negative breast cancers, which do not respond to hormonal therapy medicines or medicines that target certain protein receptors.
Meanwhile, research published in Cancer Control, a medical journal, found that breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed among U.S. Latinas and it’s the top cause of cancer-related death in that community. Puerto Rican and Mexican women are more likely than other Hispanic women to die from breast cancer.
Both Black women and Latinas in Philadelphia are more likely than white women to have difficulties accessing health care and insurance, making it harder for them to get the preventive testing that could save their lives.
To my Black and Latina sisters: I hope that you will use my story to do a breast self-exam today. You need to get to know your breasts so that you know if something doesn’t feel right. And self-exams are not enough. Get a mammogram regularly. Because of my own experience, I’ve learned that regular screening is absolutely vital to detecting and treating this disease.
My promise to the women of Philadelphia is that I will be a strong advocate for wider screening options, more access to screening, and getting women of color more engaged in their health options. This is what the brave women I represent deserve and expect me to do.
Maria Quiñones-Sánchez represents Philadelphia’s 7th District in City Council.