For a time, it seemed nothing could go wrong for award-winning singer-songwriter Soraya. The Colombian pop star's songs were topping the charts on Latin American and U.S. Spanish-language radio stations. She had toured with Alanis Morissette, Michael Bolton and Sting, and in two weeks was going to begin another two-year tour.
Then came the crushing news.
The singer, then 31, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news was even more devastating because her grandmother, mother and maternal aunt had died of the disease. The diagnosis forced Soraya to put her music career on hold and spend most of the next two years fighting for her life.
Today, after undergoing treatment and a mastectomy, Soraya at 34 is cancer-free. She is a spokeswoman for breast cancer groups, talking to Latinas about the need for preventive screening and regular breast care. There's a strong need for her message, especially among lower-income Latinas who, for a variety of reasons, are not always well-informed about breast cancer prevention and treatment.
Some Latinas are reluctant to get screened because breast cancer is considered shameful. "It's a disgrace, almost like having a sexually transmitted disease or a crazy aunt in the attic," said David Hayes-Bautista, professor of medicine and director of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine. Cultural barriers, poverty and inadequate access to screening and treatment are reasons Latinas are more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.
By helping to raise awareness, Soraya and other activists are helping to alleviate some of these problems, said Hayes-Bautista. "The more this gets brought out publicly, the better," he says. "However, if we continue to raise awareness without addressing the structural issues of access to screening and treatment, we'll still have a problem."
Soraya, who was born in New Jersey, spent her first eight years in Colombia before moving back to the U.S. She now calls Miami home. In Los Angeles recently to record a CD and music video, Soraya talked to The Times about her efforts to raise public awareness of the disease.
Talk about the moment you learned you had breast cancer. You were about to leave on a tour. Your bags were packed. The band was ready. And you got a call?
Contracts were signed. Appearances were scheduled. And everything froze. I had to cancel all of it and tell my record company. Then, because I worried about how the media would present my story, I decided I needed to get the message out in my words. I made a two-minute video in my backyard and explained that I'd been diagnosed with breast cancer. I asked for prayers and for help in finding a cure for this disease.
The video got quite a response?
It was picked up everywhere, all over the Anglo and Latino media. I was stunned. After it aired, we received more than 6,000 e-mails in four days from women and men offering their support, sharing their stories and asking for help. I saw how much need there was in the Latino community for someone to be public about this.
How did people in your industry react to the diagnosis?
In the beginning, certain people I worked with didn't want me to mention the breast cancer. Sex appeal is a big part of what's used to sell records, and they were afraid this would affect that. They were afraid it would put people off, but it did just the opposite.
And how did you cope initially with the reality that you had cancer?
For the first weeks, I just went from test to test, scan to scan. I felt sad and broken. But I had this great team of doctors, and after a few weeks we had a plan. I told myself I couldn't stay like this. I needed to ask the right questions, learn what I needed to learn and figure out how to stay strong, positive and focused.
You saw what happened to your mother and grandmother, and were already a spokeswoman for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation when you got the diagnosis. Did that seem ironic to you?
My involvement with the foundation was more a blessing than an irony. Right after my diagnosis, one of my first calls was to [foundation founder] Nancy Brinker. She gave me a lot of confidence and pointed me to the best doctors in my area. If there was any irony, it was that this hit me when I was at the epitome of good health: I was running three to five miles a day, getting good rest, eating well, and I was only 31.
Although you were very aware of breast cancer, your cancer was fairly far along. How did that happen?
I've been practicing breast self-exam since my teens. I'd felt other small changes in my breast before, always had them checked out and they were normal. This lump came on very fast. I was in the shower, and felt it under my arm. It was a Friday. I called the doctor that day and said, "I need to see you Monday."
When was that?
June 5, 2000. Diagnosis: Stage 3 cancer.
What did your treatment involve?