When Alejandra Campoverdi was an infant, her great-grandmother died of breast cancer. At 16, the disease claimed her grandmother’s life as well. Both her mother and a tía are survivors. And just a few weeks ago, she learned one more of her mom’s sisters was diagnosed. Campoverdi, like many of the women in her family, carries BRCA2, a genetic mutation that increases her risk of developing breast cancer to 85 percent, and soon, she’ll undergo a preventative double mastectomy that will reduce her likelihood of sharing the fate of her female relatives by 95 percent – a decision she feels fortunate to make, especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“As the date gets closer and closer, it feels more and more real. I’ve had a swirl of emotions, but when I look at the odds, when I think about the struggles the women in my life have gone through, I feel grateful and lucky,” Campoverdi, 39, tells me.
“I’ve had people in my family struggle through breast cancer with no health insurance.”
The Los Angeles-based Mexican-American also feels fortunate because most women in her community aren’t able to take preventative measures. In fact, while Latinas experience breast cancer at lower rates than most ethnic groups, they tend to be diagnosed at more advanced stages, making them 20 percent more likely than white women to die from the disease. According to Susan G. Komen, the largest and most-funded breast cancer organization in the country, Latinas have a greater probability of discovering the disease at later stages, often when the tumors are larger and have spread, because they are less likely to schedule consistent mammogram exams and more likely to delay follow-ups after an abnormal test result, often due to low-income, a lack of health insurance and limited English proficiency.
“I’ve had people in my family struggle through breast cancer with no health insurance. When my grandmother first felt a lump, she didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t have insurance and didn’t want to inconvenience anyone to go out of pocket. A year later, when she was diagnosed, it was too late. The cancer had spread,” Campoverdi, a former political aide who, under President Barack Obama, was the first White House Deputy Director of Hispanic Media, adds. “I’ve seen my mother and aunt, who only had access to ab HMO, battle breast cancer while also battling to be seen as more than just a number. They had to assert themselves to feel like they were being listened to.”
Knowing that her family’s experiences weren’t unique, Campoverdi ran for Congress in 2017, vying for Xavier Becerra’s then-vacant seat in California’s 34th district to resist Donald Trump’s and Congressional Republicans’ efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which could have left countless of women with preexisting conditions, like breast cancer diagnoses, uninsurable.
“If Donald Trump wants to have a conversation about women’s bodies, let’s start with mine,” Campoverdi, who did not make the run-off, said in a powerful ad where she disclosed her BRCA2 gene mutation.
While Republicans were unsuccessful at repealing Obamacare, the Trump administration is still arguing in court that the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions should be ruled unconstitutional, ongoing litigation that could make it to the Supreme Court. And with Brett Kavanaugh recently confirmed to the high court, Campoverdi believes women’s bodies and health, already under attack, face an even greater threat.
She’s now responding to the strikes with the Well Woman Coalition: an initiative aiming to empower women of color to have agency over their own health and healing through awareness, education, and advocacy. Launched on October 2 in Los Angeles, the coalition creates space for learning and physical, mental and spiritual healing through community events – where everyday Black and brown survivors share their stories – multilingual resources on how to perform self-exams and advocate for your health, as well as multimedia educational opportunities that center on and show women of color being proactive about their own wellness.
“I can’t overstate the power of seeing diverse images of Latinas and women of color taking ownership of their health in this way, of having this conversation in a culturally competent way that’s inclusive. When you don’t see yourself reflected in advocacy, which I feel is the case with breast cancer, you feel alone,” says Campoverdi, who recently teamed up with Alianza Nacional de Campesinas to create a video about breast and cervical cancer screenings for farmworkers.
The goal of the Well Woman Coalition isn’t to tell women what to do but rather to arm them with the information they need – from increased medical surveillance to preventative or life-saving surgeries – so that they’re empowered to make the best choices for their well being. While Campoverdi understands that we have little control over what happens to our bodies, she stresses that we can fight to save our lives by being our biggest champions, starting by having a grasp of our physical and mental health and being relentless about maintaining our wellbeing.
While nervous about her double mastectomy, Campoverdi feels comfort in knowing that accompanying the BRCA2 gene mutation that her female elders passed down to her is also their strength and grit – both, she’s confident, will get her through.
Update, October 22 at 2:05 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to correct a couple of quotes. An earlier version also confused members of Campoverdi’s family.