Maria Azucena Olague Salazar and her two sons celebrated Mother's Day in the hospital a few weeks before she died in May of 2015.EXPAND
Maria Azucena Olague Salazar and her two sons celebrated Mother's Day in the hospital a few weeks before she died in May of 2015.
Courtesy of Yolanda Medina

Komen’s Absence in Arizona May Hit Hispanic Women Hard

Yolanda Medina describes her mother, Maria Azucena Olague Salazar, as stubborn.

When her mother noticed the lump in her breast, Medina insisted she get it checked out. She shuffled her mother, undocumented and uninsured, from one clinic to the next trying to get a diagnosis.

Nationwide, Hispanics consistently have the highest uninsured rate among racial groups. Those who have immigrated to the United States are twice as likely to be uninsured than Hispanic residents born in the U.S., according to Pew Research.

As a result of these financial obstacles, Hispanic and Latino women are less likely to be screened compared with white and black women.

With 30 percent of the Arizona population identifying as Hispanic or Latino, the demise of Komen Arizona could leave a dangerous gap in funding for free medical treatment.

This year, 90 percent of women assisted by the Maricopa Health Foundation are Hispanic or Latino. For more than 10 years, the foundation has counted on Komen to help subsidize these women’s treatment, said Joyce Graham, the foundation’s director of finance.

A Komen study found that only 31 percent of women who were uninsured had a mammogram in the past two years, compared with the 68 percent of women who did have health insurance.

With a strong emphasis on early detection, grants from Komen Arizona were filling that gap.

Maricopa Integrated Health System, the hospital affiliated with the foundation, offers affordable mammograms, Graham said. However, the women the foundation serves often are past the point of preventive care. More than half the patients supported by the foundation come in with late-stage or advanced cancer.

“Culturally, women seem to take care of their kids and everybody else first and themselves last,” Graham said.

It’s no coincidence that breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the Hispanic and Latino community.

Salazar was raising three children alone and making a living cleaning houses and selling tamales.

As caretaker, she didn’t want to use her daughter’s money for her own medical expenses. Besides, the lump was probably nothing.

But the mass grew. It turned colors. The skin on her left breast turned an orangey-brown shade. Soon, it was hard for Salazar to breathe.

When Medina finally took her mother to the emergency room, it was too late.

The cancer was Stage Four.

Medina had already spent $1,000 just trying to figure out what was wrong. Now the family was faced with a new financial burden of treating that problem.

“It just kept adding up and adding up,” Medina said. “Cancer doesn’t stop, it just kept going and going.”

The savings Medina had accumulated while working and going to school was depleted in two months.

With no medical home, Medina continued to research cancer treatment centers that were subsidized or free, like the Maricopa Health Foundation.

She turned to the community members within Promise Arizona and Golden Gates Community Center where her mother volunteered to help make up the difference.

But cancer was more persistent.

Doctors told Salazar that she was no longer responding to treatment. Medina took her home to their shared apartment, where her body slowly shut down.

This October, the woman everyone called Susy would have been 48 years old.

Medina says that two years later, she’s still left with unanswered questions and frustrated “what ifs.”

“She wasn’t looked upon as a human,” she said of her mother’s treatment.

Doctors didn’t see a woman who emigrated from Mexico to escape an abusive relationship.

They didn’t see a volunteer who taught adults to read and write.

They didn’t see someone who was so loved in her community that a crowd of more than 500 attended her funeral to say goodbye.

What they saw, Medina said, was a brown woman with no Social Security number.

And that made all the difference.

Email lindsay.moore@newtimes.com.

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