I have never known a time in my life when breast cancer was not present. My family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico just a few years before I was born. When I was a baby, my great-grandmother died of breast cancer. When I was a teenager, my grandmother died of breast cancer. My mother was diagnosed when I was in my early twenties. And in my thirties, I witnessed two of my aunts battle the disease. Given my family medical history, I leapt at the chance to take a BRCA genetic test in 2013 when I first heard of it on the news. Hereditary cancer seemed like the most likely cause and my results confirmed it – I tested positive for a BRCA2 mutation.
Armed with the knowledge that I had an 85% risk of developing breast cancer, I decided to undergo risk-reducing surgery. In 2018, I underwent what I thought was a preventive double mastectomy but there was a plot twist. Routine testing of my removed breast tissue revealed that I unknowingly had undetected Stage 0 non-invasive breast cancer in one of my breasts, despite a recent negative mammogram and ultrasound. Yet because of my preventive action (genetic testing and a double mastectomy), I did not need to undergo any additional treatment. I beat breast cancer before I knew I had it.
Throughout my career, I have fought and advocated for marginalized communities at every level – working in the Obama White House as Deputy Director of Hispanic Media and running for U.S. Congress in 2017. My experience with BRCA was no different and led me to become an outspoken advocate for equity in women’s health and breast cancer awareness. And as a Latina, it was particularly important to me that women of color feel a sense of empowered health and healing so, in addition to documenting my experiences on Instagram, I founded The Well Woman Coalition to serve as a resource and to build a sense of community. I also founded LATINX & BRCA in partnership with Penn Medicine’s Basser Center for BRCA –which is the first awareness campaign on the BRCA gene mutation that targets Latinos and offers Spanish-language educational materials.
Most recently, I produced and appeared in the PBS health documentary INHERITANCE, a film that intimately follows the surgical journeys of three women who are genetically predisposed to breast cancer and has been named one of the “Best Documentaries of 2020” by ELLE Magazine.
My journey with BRCA and breast cancer has been a practice in honoring my intuition. From taking a genetic test to going through with a “preventive” surgery, I turned inward repeatedly for guidance and reassurance. Even when others doubted my decision, I trusted my gut. This journey has been the greatest validation of the importance of cultivating and listening to that inner voice. I am cancer-free today because of it.
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