Latina Cancer Patients Find Support Through Unique DIVAS Program


By Annika Darling
Before the DIVAS program was formed, women with cancer in the Hartford area who only spoke Spanish were hard pressed to find support. It was when Sotera Davila, who was suffering from cancer, pointed out the the gap to her nurse that the group began to take shape.
Through leadership from the Hispanic Health Council and grassroots community support, DIVAS, “Damas Informadas, Valientes y Airosas Superando el Cancer” or “Informed, Brave, Lively Women who are Overcoming Cancer” was formed in 1999, a few years after Davila, who was originally from Puerto Rico, made the observation. Davila, who passed away in 2008, became one of the charter members. 
What started out as the Hartford area’s only Spanish-language cancer support group for Latinas, with just enough money for a 10-hour-a-week consultant to run the program, has since grown into a comprehensive bilingual case management, social support, and referral service.
Awilda Maldonado, who works as the Early Detection Program Coordinator at the Hispanic Health Clinic in Hartford and coordinates the DIVAS Latina cancer support group, said she is “blessed” to be in her position.
“It’s amazing to hear the women’s stories about the struggles they have faced throughout their cancer diagnosis and treatment,” she said. “I’m very honored that the services offered through the DIVAS program are able to help them understand and face their journey through the disease.”
Too often compassion is left out of cancer treatment, Maldonado said. With the DIVAS group, coming into the group is like coming in a family.
“We take you in, and there is a lot of compassion. Everyone’s feeling what you’re feeling. We know exactly what you’re going through.”
One of the most important lessons Maldonado has taken away from her work with DIVAS is the urgency Latinas should have in educating themselves about cancer. Connecticut has the highest incidence of breast cancer in the United States – approximately 3,000 women in the state will be diagnosed this year – and Maldonado is adamant about education and early detection.
“At times I feel like I’m out at sea waving my arms yelling ‘Look at me, look at me’ and people are too busy picking up Johnny from school or getting ready for a presentation at work,” Maldonado said. “We get so busy living our lives that we put off important appointments like mammograms. Many people truly just don’t think it will happen to them.”
Although Maldonado has not been physically affected by cancer as the members of the group have, cancer has left its mark on her life. She lost her grandfather to testicular cancer, which she recalled as a devastating blow since he was never able to meet her son, who is now seven  years old.
“I’ve lost a lot of people to cancer, so this is very personal work for me. It truly gives me a profound appreciation of life,” she said.
Through her work, Maldonado recalled the many women she has met through DIVAS. Some have hopeful and inspiring stories, which they share with other women who are facing similar struggles, she said, but there is a harsh reality to her job as well. Even though the support group offers immeasurable comfort, many women she has worked with are no longer here to share their stories.
Even though her work can be grim at times, Maldonado remembered one of her favorite members who attended DIVAS meetings to share her story. The woman, who was only 27 years old, came to her with Stage 4 breast cancer seeking support.
The woman, who at her age never expected to be diagnosed breast cancer, is now in full recovery after undergoing a mastectomy, Maldonado said. They now work together to educate the public about cancer.
Overall, the stories imparted by DIVAS members has given Maldonado perspective on life and helps her gauge what is truly important.
Sometimes we complain about the little things in life but in the end does it really matter? Does it matter if the woman at the salon messes up your nails, or maybe you can’t pay a bill? Well, so what! Are these things really worth getting upset or depressed about?” she said. “I have a seven-year-old son, and every time I get to spend with him I treasure, because life is so precious.” 
(Photo courtesy of the Hispanic Health Council)