Completing the Circle of Life

CURE, Winter Supplement 2009, Volume 8, Issue 0

Carmen Ortiz, PhD, executive director of San Francisco-based Circulo de Vida, a support group for Latinas, is angry. Yet again, a doctor has asked a Spanish-speaking patient to have a family member interpret the bad news that their loved one has cancer.

“I had one daughter who was asked to interpret for her mother,” Ortiz says. “When the doctor told her what to tell her mother, which was that she had advanced cancer, the daughter got hysterical. The mother didn’t speak English but could read her daughter’s response.”

Ortiz was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39 in 1988, four months after finishing her graduate studies in psychology. At first, she says, she didn’t want anything to do with cancer. Then four years into her career as a mental health counselor, one of her clients was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she counseled her, Ortiz says, it changed the course of her career. She became involved in cancer support, ultimately assuming the job of facilitator of a San Francisco breast cancer support group that had dwindled to two members.

Ortiz moved the program closer to the Latino community, changed the meeting time from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and included dinner to promote socializing. Soon, she had built four support groups—one specifically for young women—filled with Latinas from all over the San Francisco Bay Area. In keeping with the family focus, women are encouraged to bring their children, who meet in age-appropriate groups with a professional facilitator to have their own questions answered.

Today, thanks to the director of oncology services at San Francisco General Hospital, Ortiz is present when Latinas are diagnosed at the hospital.

As Circulo de Vida’s only full-time staff, Ortiz has trained a number of survivor volunteers, who have been in the support groups, to be “angelitas”—little angels—and reach out to the newly diagnosed until they have sufficiently recovered or until they join a support group.

Ortiz says women stay involved in Circulo de Vida (www.circulodevida.org; 415-648-9423) as long as they want because even long after recovery the group provides support and caring. And, says Ortiz, no one ever asks a family member to leave a family.