Pushing Beyond Hispanic Heritage Month

Patti’s Mother, Tia (who would have been 94 on 10/22/22), & Abuelita

I was born in the US in the late 1950s. Both of my parents were born in Nicaragua, Central America. Even though I was born in the US, my grandparents raised me in Nicaragua until the age of eight. At that time, I returned to live with my parents in New York City. Making my first language Spanish. Growing up, we never spoke about menstruation, sex, or anything related to reproductive health at home. It was taboo. Schools did not teach sex education in those days either. I learned as I went along, hearing bits and pieces from my friends. 

Even though I am educated and well-rounded, sex education was a subject that I did not know much about. I only knew the basics. You might be thinking this is sad – Perhaps– but this is the way Latino parents have raised their kids for many generations. I wish someone had taught me about bodily development, and the broad variety of topics related to sex and sexuality, to have gained the skills needed to manage my sexual health.

Even today, in Latino households we do not have parents talking enough about sex education with their children.  There has been improvement, but there is a lot more we can do.

Unfortunately, cervical cancer in some cultures, including the Hispanic culture, is perceived to be a cancer of sexually promiscuous people. I believe this causes great stigma and shame. We can change this perception by first knowing the facts of cervical cancer, and educating others and ourselves. Educating the next generation properly is important. Teaching them about all the risks that exist, besides getting pregnant at an early age.

At the time of my diagnosis, I felt ashamed of having this type of cancer. I did not know too much about it nor did I know how I got cervical cancer.  I had to educate myself so I could properly explain it to my family. My shame resilience came with time. You need to remember that a particular belief passed from generation to generation is hard to change and hard to let go.

Patti Murillo-Casa, Dr. Jason Wright, & Tamika Felder at a Pap Rally & Run by Cervivor, Inc.

Today, I am an advocate and an educator on cervical cancer. I educate women, especially Latinas, on the tools we have to prevent this type of cancer. Latinas are the demographic most diagnosed with cervical cancer. The two main reasons why are a lack of knowledge about the disease, and a lack of screening. However, we can take steps to change the fate of many.

Over the past 10 years, I have teamed up with my oncologist to provide free cervical cancer screenings for women in NYC who may not have medical insurance.

I was declared cancer free in 2009, and I use to visit my oncologist every three months for check-ups after that. In 2010 when I became an advocate, I use to come in and tell my doctor about all the work and advocacy I was doing in NYC.  

We developed an awesome patient/doctor relationship; he saw my enthusiasm and passion for the mission of eliminating cervical cancer. One day, during one of those visits, he said, “Patti I want to help you and the Cervivor organization with your mission. Let’s offer FREE screenings to uninsured women.” I looked at him, smiled, and the only thing that came out of my mouth was, “Are you serious?” He smiled back and said, “Yes, let’s make it happen.” 

However, before we set up a date, he needed to put everything together. He needed to make sure that the lab was on the same page to not charge patients for processing the Pap/HPV test.  He also needed to gather medical staff to come in on their day off, and donate their time.  

This was amazing. I could not have asked for a better offer. On May 19, 2012, we held our first FREE screening event. It was a huge success. We have been offering this program annually since that first day and this year marks our 10-year anniversary.

We have also collaborated with other departments within the hospital, and for the past four years, in addition to cervical cancer screenings, we have offered FREE mammograms and FREE colon cancer screenings for uninsured men and women in the community.  

Dr. Jason Wright and his staff at the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Columbia University/NY Presbyterian Hospital are committed to this mission. Dr. Wright has always been supportive to the Cervivor organization and my advocacy work. I am so thankful to him and his staff for putting these events together. Because of them, hundreds of women have been screened throughout the years, and many lives have been saved.

Patient advocates and their oncologists can create a partnership together to reach more women in the community, and offer education, screenings, support, or mentorship to women that need these services.  

Patti Murillo-Casa, Cervivor Wellness Instructor

Cervivor is grateful to Patti for bringing her passion and talents for wellness and cancer prevention to our mission. She is a vital part of what makes us #CervivorStrong. Thank you, Patti!

Miss USA Advocates for Cervical Cancer Awareness

We must talk about cervical cancer. In our community, you’ll hear stories of loss of fertility, recurrences, ostomies and so many other secondary issues because of a cervical cancer diagnosis. You’ll also hear the stories of those who are no longer with us, their stories still making an impact to prevent others from having to endure such a devastating disease. Cervivor empowers and elevates the stories of cervical cancer survivors everywhere to shine a bright light on what cervical cancer is and who it impacts.

Miss USA has been a sought-after and highly respected beauty pageant since 1952. Their mission is to reimagine pageantry, to encourage the contestants to use their voice and to give back with charitable work. Cervivor’s mission is on par. We give those diagnosed with cervical cancer a patient advocacy voice, empowering them to raise much-needed awareness for a cancer so misunderstood.

Photo from Elle’s Instagram: @officialellesmith

Elle Smith has been crowned the 2021 Miss USA title BUT that’s not all…She’s dedicating part of her platform to cervical cancer awareness! Not many people have chosen a platform with a history of stigma like cervical cancer has had but Elle has a deeper, more personal connection.

Elle lost her grandmother in 2015 to the devastating disease we know as cervical cancer. Someone she cared for and loved so deeply was gone and she knew she couldn’t just sit back. Elle wanted to honor her grandmother by making her grandmother’s story matter.

Elle’s decision matters so deeply to the Cervivor community. No one should have to watch their loved ones die from a preventable cancer. There were tears of joy and words of encouragement from so many in our community.

Photo from Elle’s Instagram: @officialellesmith

Maria Franklin shared, “Watching Miss Universe as every good Puerto Rican and pulling for Puerto Rico of course but, did you guys hear Miss USA talk about #cervicalcancer and the importance of gynecological health!!! Loved that she used this platform for it!!!”

“This is fantastic! We need more women helping us raise awareness!” said Tracy Jimenez.

“What a monumental moment to have cervical cancer awareness on a global platform. As a 20-year cervical cancer survivor and the founder of Cervivor, this is exactly the type of visibility that is needed to help us end cervical cancer. Thank you, Miss USA Elle Smith.” shared Cervivor Founder, Tamika Felder.

We are supporting Miss USA and are forever grateful that she is using her platform to help end cervical cancer. We encourage staying up-to-date on the current screening guidelines. And don’t forget to join us in January for Cervical Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM).