"I Made a Deal With God"
Family Circle October 15, 2003
by Elizabeth Pope
In late July 1992, flight attendant Venus Ginés, then 41, had just served dinner to first-class passengers when she slipped in the galley and hurt her ankle. “This can’t be happening,” she thought. “I’m three weeks away from starting law school.”
Soon after the plane landed in Los Angeles, she hobbled into the local emergency room in terrible pain. During the exam, the doctor told her that she had sprained her ankle. But when he discussed her medical history, he noticed that she had never had a mammogram and asked her about it.
“There was no cancer in my family," she told the doctor. "Besides," she said, "I'm Latina. Latinas don't get breast cancer."
The doctor suggested a clinical breast exam, and found a lump. “The blood just drained from my face,” she remembers. Later tests showed Venus also had lupus, an autoimmune disease that has no cure. "I couldn't believe this was happening to my body," she says.
At the time Venus was in the midst of quitting her airline job and moving from California to North Carolina, where she had won a full scholarship to the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill. Now a mammogram and sonogram were quickly added to a lengthy to-do list that included packing, driving across the country and settling daughter Krista, then 18, and son Richard, 11 into a new house.
Once she got to North Carolina, Venus had a biopsy. The night before law-school orientation, a nurse from the doctor's office called her. "She said, 'Venus, I wish I could say it was benign,'" she recalls. "I dropped the phone and started crying." She withdrew from law school.
“It was a very traumatic time,” says Venus, a single mother. “I made a will and arranged for the care of my son and daughter. Little did I know that God had other plans for me.”
One day not long after her diagnosis Richard asked his mother to pray with him. Remembers Venus, “He said, ‘You tell me what I have to do, God, because you can’t take my Mom, I have nobody else but her.‘ It just broke my heart. I didn’t realize how frightened he was.
“I got down on my knees and I made a deal with God. I started praying: ‘If you’ll just give me these extra years, I’ll use them wisely. I’ll make sure other women will learn about cancer. I’ll do everything possible to help my community.”
Richard, now 23, says he prayed for his mother every night until he went to sleep. “I promised the Lord that I would stand by my mom’s side and be there whenever she needed me -- even giving up my play time. And I kept my promise.”
So did Venus, who in the 11 years since learning about her illness has worked tirelessly to bring affordable health care to Latina women across the country.
Venus relocated to Atlanta, where she resumed flying domestic runs, underwent successful treatment, and spent hours in the library researching breast cancer.
According to Amelie G. Ramirez, Dr.P.H.,an associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the Hispanic/Latina population. Yet Latinas have traditionally avoided mainstream preventive medicine. Among the reasons: less access to health care or bilingual doctors, lack of insurance and few providers who understand their culture.
Says Dr. Ramirez: “We try not to use the word cancer in our outreach education because it strikes such tremendous fear" especially for women who have had friends die soon after a cancer diagnosis. “What they don’t realize is that the person waited too long to seek care and if they had been screened early enough, chances of survival would have been much better.”
Venus appeared regularly on Atlanta’s Spanish-language radio stations and gave workshops on the importance of early detection. By 1994 her high-profile activism won her a spot in a United Way public service television commercial, and when the American Cancer Society funded a soap-opera style video and booklet based on her life, Venus played the starring role. To date, more than 3,000 booklets have been distributed around the country, a project that earned Venus a national award.
At health conferences, she met activists like Selma Morris, a breast-health liaison for Grady Health System in Atlanta, who in 1995 invited her to a major cancer symposium in Washington. Venus stood up in front of 500 prominent researchers and asked them about the dearth of statistics on Latinas.
“Venus is no bigger than a minute but she’s not afraid to march up to a hospital CEO or the head of the American Cancer Society and ask ‘What are you doing to address the health care disparities among Latinos and Hispanics,” says Selma.
One member of the audience was David Satcher, M.D., later appointed U.S. Surgeon General. “He challenged me,” Venus recalls. “He said, ‘We need people like you who are trusted to help us gather the data in the community.'”
Satcher’s words spurred her to apply to graduate school, where she focused on the cultural and system barriers faced by Latinas with breast cancer.
Still,says Venus, “I had to find a way to entice the women to get a mammogram.”
In 1997, Venus persuaded the Mexican consulate in Atlanta to turn a local shopping center into a one-day health festival with mariachi bands, ethnic delicacies, children’s game -- and free medical screenings by area hospitals. She called it "El Dia de La Mujer Latina" (Day of the Latin American Woman) Funding was provided by the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and Grady Health System. Volunteers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Latino organizations also pitched in, and hairdressers and cosmetologists gave free makeovers to women who were screened. A thousand people showed up. “We were so worried, we didn’t think anyone would come,” Venus recalls.
It has been an annual hit ever since. Nearly 8,000 people came to this year's event, which was devoted to family health issues and offered childhood vaccinations, diabetes and prostate cancer screening, domestic violence and drug counseling, HIV/AIDS tests, eye,dental and breast exams. The idea is spreading: Denver and a small rural community in Puerto Rico recently hosted a fair and 13 other cities are also interested.
Of the nearly 1,500 adults screened this year, two women were rushed to the hospital for diabetes and high-blood pressure treatment, 40 women needed biopsies after abnormal Pap tests and two men were found to have prostate cancer. All were referred to physicians who treated them for free or reduced fees.
Seventy physicians and more than 100 other health care professionals -- nurses, dentists, optometrists, hospital administrators and social workers, for example -- volunteer their services. Obstetrician and gynecologist Gerry Sotomayor, M.D. is a consultant at the fair. “Last year we discovered two women with cervical cancer; one was in early invasive stage and had surgery right away with excellent results," he recalls. "Another, who was five weeks pregnant, had noninvasive cancer. The baby was delivered without any problems."
Venus, now 52, continues to speak at major cancer conferences, testifies before Congress and serves on the Governor’s Georgia Cancer Coalition. Son Richard acts as the fair's youth outreach coordinator.
“I’ve been able to save lives,” says Venus. “That’s the best medicine. Every night I thank God for these extra years.”