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'Promotoras' bridge doctor-patient language barrier in hospitals

August 11, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Being diagnosed with cancer is overwhelming as it is. But imagine how difficult it would be if you didn't speak the same language as your doctor. For so many patients, that's the case. A new program is trying to help breakthrough the language barrier.

It's a challenge some cancer patients who speak primarily Spanish face when they visit their doctors. And it's scaring some away from getting the help they need. But now a new project aims to bridge the language gap.

Maria Gloria Sanchez, a breast-cancer survivor, likes to spend quality time in the kitchen with her family.

Hispanic women have lower rates of breast cancer compared to white and black women. Still, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among Latinas.

Maria's daughter, Selene Elias, did not want her mom to become a statistic.

"We had never been exposed to anything like that," said Selene.

Low screening participation is one reason Hispanic women are more likely to be diagnosed at a more advanced stage. Language barriers with their doctors can make things even worse.

But right after Maria was diagnosed, she was contacted by a Patient Navigator, or "Promotora."

Bilingual, bicultural patient navigators like Guadalupe Cornejo are stationed at cancer centers in a handful of U.S. cities with large Latino populations. They're helping Hispanics with cancer fill out important medical forms, make doctor appointments and arrange transportation for treatment.

"Or just provide that emotional support, which a lot of patients do like that," said Cornejo.

"Patient Navigators are out there saving lives," said Sandra San Miguel de Majors, Institute for Health Promotion Research.

Sandra helped develop the Patient Navigator Research Program. The goal is to ensure Latinos get timely, potentially life-saving cancer care.

"A lot of them don't speak English, and there's a lot of fears and myths," said Sandra.

Rudy Gamboa says his cultural connection to Guadalupe Cornejo helps him feel less fearful dealing with colon cancer

"I know that if I have any questions or I need anything I can always call her and ask her and she'll be there," said Gamboa, a colon cancer patient.

Maria is now cancer-free, but still turns to Guadalupe for help, and she's happy to make house calls.

The Patient Navigator Research Program is funded by the National Cancer Institute. While it's coming to an end, funding from Lance Armstrong Foundation's LIVESTRONG is helping keep Promotoras in hospitals around the country.

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