Celebrating Life and Health for 14 Years, One Woman at a Time

Posted in GUMC Stories

Holding up the plastic model of a female torso, Georgeen Newland stands comfortably in front of two dozen women seated in a circle at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In her soothing Venezuelan Spanish, Newland is demonstrating to her rapt audience on the plastic model how to examine each quadrant of each breast.

Welcome to a recent session of ¡Celebremos la Vida! — or “Let’s Celebrate Life” – a free well women’s clinic where Latina women from Northern Virginia receive breast and cervical cancer education and screenings via mammograms and pap smears.

A Longstanding Partnership

This active partnership between the Prevent Cancer Foundation, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital started in 1998 at a Georgetown satellite clinic in Arlington, Virginia. Since then, the hospital has treated – also free of charge – eight Celebremos participants for breast cancer and six for cervical cancer detected by clinic screenings.

Celebremos is held 10 Saturdays a year at the Betty Lou Ourisman Breast Health Center on Lombardi’s lower level.
In its now 14 years in existence, nearly 3,000 participants and accompanying family and friends have received education, 2,092 mammograms have been provided, and 2,034 clinical breast exams and 1,841 pap smears have been performed.

Providing a Safe Haven

On this recent Saturday morning, Newland, the Celebremos project manager and health educator, explains in Spanish the role of proper nutrition, exercise and rest. She defines nodules, lymph nodes and masses, detailing why they are important. She describes what it’s like to have a mammogram, clinical breast exam and a pap smear.

She talks about the health dangers of stress, fear and loneliness, and guides the women in soothing meditation. Afterwards, she invites the women to enjoy breakfast while they await screenings.

But one woman stays seated, sobbing. Newland hugs her and leads her into a private room. “There are two critical components at Celebremos: the trust element and the respect of the culture, which are so relevant because we are here to serve Latinas,” Newland says later.

While careful to keep confidential the distraught woman’s pain, Newland emphasizes the intense emotional relief that the clinic sessions can bring to women who may not have experienced kindness and cultural sensitivity in a hospital setting before. Many of them do not have access to regular medical care or preventive services.

“Like the lady who cried, this may be the only time in a whole year that any of them see a white coat,” she says.

Elizabeth Ergueta, a volunteer at the clinic since its inception, says; “They are in a very safe place when they are here and it’s not common for them. It’s intimate.”

Lifesaving Education and Prevention

The Celebremos clinic at Georgetown Lombardi is one of four similar cancer screening and education clinics founded and funded by the Prevent Cancer Foundation across the country. Nationwide, the Celebremos program has provided services to nearly 7,000 Hispanic women, including more than 6,800 mammograms and more than 6,700 pap tests. More than 9,000 Celebremos participants, their families and friends have benefited from education on breast and cervical cancer and on healthy lifestyles, nutrition and the preventable nature of some cancers, according to the foundation.

“The hallmark of a Celebremos program like the one at Georgetown is cultural, the sense of a staff that knows what it is to be Latina, the sense of ‘I feel at home here and I am getting what I need, both tangible and intangible, so, ‘Let us celebrate life,’” says Carolyn R. “Bo” Aldigé, president and founder of Prevent Cancer Foundation. Since 2000, the Foundation has supported Celebremos with more than $1 million and separately funded investigators at the Medical Center with nearly $2 million.

Aldigé lost her father to cancer at a time when early detection was a nascent idea and cancer prevention a radical notion. In 1985, she started Prevent Cancer Foundation with a singular mission: to advance cancer prevention and early detection through funding of education and biomedical research.

“We know that regular mammograms and pap smears save lives and so we know that the individuals we have helped, in turn shared that information and helped save a lot of families,” Aldigé says. “It’s a point of entry to the health care system, and an arena of trust, part of the safety net of a medically fragile group.”

That has proven a lifesaving reality to a 46-year old woman we will refer to as Maria, and her mother, Lorena, who is in her mid-70s. (Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.) Lorena began participating in Celebremos a decade ago. Last fall, Maria’s annual screening revealed she had breast cancer. Since then, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital has taken care of Lorena’s chemotherapy, according to Maria.

Maria, tears welling, says Lorena’s prognosis is good even though the chemotherapy has been challenging to get through. “Our family thanks God and Celebremos,” Maria says.

“This is the only program of its kind I am aware of with this longevity that reaches out to underserved women and takes care of them without cost to them,” says Robert Warren, MD, FACP, professor of medicine at Georgetown Lombardi and medical director of the program.

“It’s a remarkable partnership: [Georgetown Lombardi] continues to serve our community, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital cares for the patients regardless of their ability to pay, and the physicians, nurses and techs are committed to donating their time. However, none of this would be possible without the support of Bo Aldigé and the Prevent Cancer Foundation,” Warren says.

By Victoria Churchville, GUMC Advancement
(Published July 25, 2012)