It has often been said that if you allow the world to change you, you can change the world. In 2018, Marina Sandoval, Community Development Manager for the American Cancer Society, was completing her Peace Corps mission in Peru. The matriarch of her host family, Laura, or as everyone affectionately called her Mama Laura, was diagnosed with cancer and within months would die. The entire family and Marina were devastated. Laura’s death gave birth to Marina’s unyielding mission to provide Latinos with information and resources to fight cancer.
In 2019 as a member of the American Cancer Society in Arizona, Marina often thought of Mama Laura, which led her to think of her abuela, who battled stage three colon cancer and died before she was born. She then wondered what would have happened if both women were educated about their symptoms and resources that existed; would both still be alive today?
Looking within American Cancer Society, Marina saw a lack of diversity in the organization and created Latinos Contra el Cáncer, a 13 member board of influential leaders committed to connecting Latinos to the Cancer Society. Latinos Contra el Cancer’s model has been so successful it’s been replicated nationally since its inception. The group is comprised of various committees: community engagement, volunteering, policy advocacy, and fundraising, because few ideas can work without financial resources.
Marina and Latinos Contra el Cáncer’s Board Chair, Jennifer Villalobos, understood their efforts had to go beyond a translation of the information and resources shared. Their work had to be representative of the communities and cultures they hoped to serve. Instead of Relay for Life, a Cancer Society’s signature event where participants walk around a track for 12 hours raising funds, Latinos Contra el Cáncer created Baila Por La Vida, inspired by fellow board member and cancer survivor Vanessa Ramirez’s idea. Instead of long distances of walking, Baila Por La Vida featured mariachis, Aztec dancers, salsa lessons, food, and Jennifer’s favorite detail of the night, an ofrenda. All of this amounted to a remembrance of those lost to cancer, and a good Pachanga of dancing, singing, gritos, and a greater distribution of information and resources to combat cancer in the Latino community.
In September 2020 because of COVID-19, Latinos Contra el Cáncer created a virtual Health and Wellness Fair. The gathering featured health related organizations connecting their services to underserved communities, and a presentation “The Journey of Cancer.”
Latinos Contra el Cáncer also hosts educational webinars, Charlas de Salud, which provide a platform for Spanish-speaking community members to obtain reliable cancer prevention education from health professionals. The Charlas de Salud had an average viewership of 19.5k in 2020.
Latinos Contra el Cáncer is committed to making all of these events annual affairs and hopes to reach a greater number of community members to inform, educate, and reduce the number of people who perish because of cancer.
When asked why she is a member of Latinos Contra el Cáncer, Jennifer emphatically said,”Cancer is the number one killer in our families. I believe leadership means giving back to the communities who helped build you.”
As the founder of the group, Marina calls this work a calling, and hopes others get involved by sharing Latinos Contra el Cáncer’s resources and event information, or donating their time and money. And while the work will continue and evolve, what’s clear is lives are being changed through Latinos Contra el Cáncer.