“This is a really important midterm election cycle. Women’s bodies are, frankly, under attack,” Alejandra Campoverdi tells me over the phone one week prior to her scheduled double mastectomy. We’re talking because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, with her family history with the disease and recent launch of her nonprofit, Well Woman Coalition (WWC), to help women of color fight it, Alejandra has much to say on the topic. But the timing also works out in that we’re mere weeks away from the 2018 midterm elections, in which Americans will vote on people and policies that will directly impact women’s health.
Alejandra is no stranger to the politics behind healthcare. Under President Obama, she was the first female to hold the role of White House Deputy Director of Hispanic Media and was previously a congressional candidate for California’s 34th district. She ran for the congressional seat on a women’s health advocacy platform as both her great-grandmother and grandmother died from breast cancer.
The BRCA Gene and Launching the Well Woman Coalition
Today, however, Alejandra has left behind politics—at least for now—to run WWC, a campaign designed to educate women of color on their own breast health, prevention, and early detection. When I ask Alejandra why the shift from the White House to founding her own organization, she tells me, “Every issue I ended up working on in the White House, and that I’ve worked to shine light on in the media, are issues I’ve watched my family deal with. These issues have informed how I see the world.” So, perhaps the specific roles she’s held are different sides of the same coin, all with the same goal of empowering women with knowledge and awareness she wishes had been available to her relatives.
Alejandra introduces her family to President Obama. Image courtesy of the White House.
In addition to the deaths of Alejandra’s grandmother and great-grandmother, her mother and two aunts have suffered from—and survived—breast cancer. Because of her family history with the disease, Alejandra was tested for the BRCA-2 gene, for which she was found positive. A positive result means she has an 85 percent change of developing breast cancer in her lifetime, which led Alejandra to opt for a double mastectomy. “A few weeks ago, another aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. The timing of [her diagnosis] removed any last shred of doubt about undergoing the surgery,” she tells me. While the impact of the disease has been devastating to Alejandra’s family, she says she can’t help but feel the power of her inherited genes and the ancestral inheritances that go beyond our DNA. She speaks of such profound connection that I catch myself, hesitant of what I want to say, but she says it for me: “It’s almost beautiful.”
How Do I Move the Baton Forward?
When she found out about the BRCA-2 gene, Alejandra began to educate herself on the topic. She became a Holistic Cancer Specialist and thoroughly researched her options. “This is a choice I’ve made, but there is another choice. There isn’t one that’s right or wrong, [a double mastectomy] is a very big decision. The most important thing is to have the information, to do genetic testing if you have first degree family members who have had breast cancer—to make an empowered decision,” she explains.
Armed with knowledge, she became aware of how much progress had been made in just three generations. Her grandmother and great-grandmother died, her mom and two aunts have survived but struggled, and now, Alejandra says, “I’m the third generation; how do I move that baton forward? What am I going to do to take it one step further?” The answer, in founding the WWC, is to pass along the information she has to some of society’s most vulnerable women—and to fight for them.
Alejandra Campoverdi. Image by Dylan Bartolini-Volk.
Breast Cancer and Women of Color
As a Latina, Alejandra is working to open up a new dialogue to combat the fact that women of color are far more likely to lose their lives to breast cancer due to the lack of education and proper health care available to their communities. She explains that Latinas are 69 percent more likely to be diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and helps put into context why this alarming number is a reality. She talks about financial barriers, in that Latina women are less likely to have adequate health insurance because of higher rates of poverty; and structural barriers, an example of which is lack of transportation to get to the doctor. What I found most interesting was her explanation of personal barriers, which include language and discrimination.
“When my grandmother, who was raised in Mexico, first felt the lump in her breast, she didn’t tell anyone. For one, she didn’t have insurance and knew she would have to burden her family financially. Also, culturally, there can be a sense of distrust of doctors because of the language barrier and [our community’s] way of relating to authority figures,” Alejandra explains. “Culturally appropriate outreach is something folks can be aware of when they’re delivering medical information to women of color.”
What Can we do?
Other than better understanding the socioeconomic and cultural reasons why women of color are disproportionately dying of breast cancer, we can help by voting, Alejandra says.
“Supporting local, diverse candidates as the local level couldn’t be more important right now. There are a lot of women and people of color running for the first time [in the 2018 midterm elections]. These are candidates that don’t have deep pockets. They may not have the institutional support of the party, but they have experiences that are critical to this new political reality. Consider donating to these candidates, even at a $25 level,” she recommends. “Find a woman in your hometown and support her. Go knock on some doors; post about her.”
In addition to grassroots support of candidates concerned with women’s health and the nuances which affect healthcare for people of color, she mentions that, while imperfect, the Affordable Care Act “helps a lot of people. It’s helped a lot of women of color as well. We don’t want to go backwards.”
Image courtesy of Alejandra Campoverdi
Preparing for the Future by Connecting to the Past
When I spoke with Alejandra, her surgery was just a week away. Unsurprisingly, her family is a major part of her emotional preparation. “I’ve gone to visit my grandmother’s grave, asking her to be with me through this, but also my family members who are still alive,” she says. “My focus is to strengthen my body and spend time with the people I love and to go into this with a very positive attitude.”
She’s checked in with her family and herself and also plans to connect with her doctors before the surgery. “I’ve heard that the energy you go into when you’re put under is the energy you’re going to wake up with. I’m accepting and embracing that I’ve made this choice, and I plan to give them permission to operate on me. To say, thank you and I give you permission to operate on me.” To go into surgery with a spirit of gratitude, both for modern medicine in enabling her to detect and prevent this disease, and for all the women who have been with her, spiritually and physically, throughout the entire process.
“This is a physically transformative process, but I feel really strongly in examining my breasts and my body that your grit and determination are only stoked. You get to see what you’re made of, and I feel more like a woman than ever.”