Circle of Support
Despite the foreign terrain, family, friends and faith help a cancer patient find familiarity and comfort.
By Cynthia Ryan
As I discovered when diagnosed with cancer in 1993, one of the unexpected challenges of survivorship is negotiating complicated relationships with family members and friends who are suddenly thrown alongside us into unfamiliar territory. Let's face it: The burden these loved ones carry into the unknown is pretty steep. They, too, must master the language and unpredictability of cancer and adjust to changes in our bodies and spirits, all while striving to ease our path through diagnosis and treatment.
Most patients readily acknowledge that the people in their support networks play crucial roles in helping them through their cancer journeys. But the story of A. Garcia, a 32-year-old woman living with stage IV inflammatory breast cancer in my adopted state of Alabama, has made me think twice about what it means for others to have your back when you most need it.
An undocumented immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, Garcia is undergoing treatment for advanced cancer at a time when many people argue that she has no right to help of any kind. Garcia was diagnosed in October 2011, four months after Alabama passed HB 56, the state’s strict new immigration law. Institutions that used to turn a blind eye to undocumented employees or drivers are now demanding compliance with the law. Surveillance on roadways and in schools and workplaces is pervasive.
Garcia and her husband are facing those consequences of the new law—Garcia lost her job in a chicken processing plant, and her husband lost his landscaping job—but they are also confronting a less-well-publicized penalty: A social security number is now necessary to verify a patient’s legal status and eligibility for health care. Local health centers told Garcia they couldn’t treat her.
Eventually, the persistence of individuals from Sembrando las Semillas de la Salud (Sowing the Seeds of Health), a cancer awareness program for Latina women, paid off: They located a health care facility an hour away that would accept Garcia as a patient. Garcia and her husband began to make their way once every two weeks for her chemotherapy, and if her cancer responds to that treatment, she will have a mastectomy in March 2012. The travel is risky, because the couple faces deportation if police stop them en route. But at least Garcia stands a chance of extending the time she has with her family. Her doctors have told her that she could live three and a half years with treatment.
For Garcia, returning to Mexico would mean giving up more than the treatment that offers hope for extending her life. She is not just a patient but also a caregiver. In August 2011, just weeks before her cancer diagnosis, she gave birth prematurely to her second child, who relies on a multitude of medical technologies to breathe and digest food. “Someone must be with my baby at all times,” Garcia told me through a translator during a recent visit to her small trailer home. The hospital staff instructed Garcia and her husband in how to care for the baby’s trachea, use her feeding tube and take care of her other basic needs. “But it is hard for me to remember all of this,” Garcia said.