Surviving Cancer Is Harder When You’re an Immigrant Like Me (OPINION)

Apr 24, 2023
4:36 PM

Jose Luis Pelaez/Stone via Getty Images


Cancer affects many of us, but it doesn’t affect us all the same.

I should know. I was a 36-year-old Mexican immigrant when I was diagnosed in March 2013 with a malignant, invasive carcinoma in my right breast and lymph nodes. I had arrived in the U.S. a year before my cancer diagnosis with no family or friends around me and a limited understanding of the English language and American culture. While I had the privilege of health insurance and an amazing caregiver in my husband, I had to cope with a system and health care providers who did not always consider my culture, ethnicity, native language, socioeconomics, or my roots.

There are many ways we can reimagine and begin to improve health inequities. What if we could empower minorities by making wellness and cancer prevention accessible to all by:

  • Sparking positive action in the areas of nutrition, physical activity, emotional health, and positive thinking by using resources that are in a variety of languages and culturally relevant content
  • Providing an encouraging community to make these lifestyle changes both attainable and sustainable
  • Encouraging minorities to work together with their healthcare team to make medical decisions together that honor the patient’s values and preferences in tandem with the provider’s expertise
  • Inspiring minorities to ask about the risks and benefits of all their options before making any important medical decisions
  • Sharing our stories of struggles and successes could inspire others to live healthier lives and reduce the frequency of chronic diseases, primarily cancer

April is National Minority Health Month, and as a Hispanic woman living in the United States, this month is especially significant to me. Today in the U.S., one in four Hispanic people live below the poverty line, and Hispanics compose 57 percent of the nation’s uninsuredThe COVID-19 pandemic also disproportionately affected Hispanics, further reducing coverage and isolating them from preventive care for diseases like cancer.

Such social determinants of health have repercussions. Cancer is the leading cause of death among Hispanics, yet 42 percent of cases could be prevented with the adoption of healthier lifestyles, receiving the recommended cancer screenings, not smoking, and improving diet and exerciseFurthermore, when Hispanic women and their families do access care or wellness resources, their cultural context or home language is often not taken into consideration, entrenching existing health disparities.

I experienced this first-hand. The balancing act of adjusting to a new culture and language while retaining pieces of my original culture was challenging—and still can be. It caused significant stress due to conflicting cultural norms, values, expectations, and language barriers. I vividly remember taking detailed notes during my doctor’s visits, even asking my doctors to spell out certain terms, to make sure I could go back and learn about them in my own language when I got home that day. It was exhausting.

Some members of my medical team seemed cold and uninterested in who I was and what I was feeling emotionally, which made it difficult to feel empowered. However, I had the blessing of having great support from my leading oncologist, who was an immigrant like me and understood the value of culturally relevant medical attention in saving lives… including mine.

I’m a survivor, and I feel I have a huge responsibility to other racial and ethnic minority groups to tell my story, especially to my beloved Hispanic community. I have witnessed how Hispanic people need empowerment—the kind of empowerment I myself needed. There was information out there to prevent and reduce the impact of cancer, but it was in English and not rooted in my culture. And in matters of life and death, culturally relevant content and the support of a community are crucial to saving lives.

Health empowerment has never been more important. A new program called Empowered Health can make a difference in preventing, treating, and living beyond cancer. Many of its patient resources are not only available in English and Spanish, but are grounded in cultural understanding and community care—a rare and unique approach in my experience. I’m grateful beyond words for resources like it.

Empowerment is only possible when patients have the right information, at the right time, and in a language and format they understand. This month, let’s make sure we work to get the right information to those vulnerable communities affected by cancer. It will save their lives.


Aideé Granados is the founder and CEO of ROSAesROJO, a nonprofit which focuses on making wellness and cancer prevention accessible to Hispanic women and their families in the United States. Twitter: @rosaesrojo