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Breast Cancer Update » Nurse Turned Researcher Looks at Latinas with Breast Cancer
Nurse Turned Researcher Looks at Latinas with Breast Cancer
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Nurse Turned Researcher Looks at Latinas with Breast Cancer

Breast cancer researcher and breast cancer survivor Maryellen Brisbois says she got her sense of humor from her father. And she is thankful for it because laughter, she says, is what helped get her and her family through her battle with breast cancer 7 years ago.

"You are in the middle of this crisis and the world is still spinning. Having a sense of humor saved me and everyone around me because they could laugh with me."

Brisbois, who was a practicing nurse for 2 decades, turned her diagnosis into a career changing moment. After recovering, she decided to pursue her longtime dream of getting her PhD so she could teach other nurses. "I found over the years that there is a need for more nurse educators who are positive and can be mentors and a support system for those in the field."

While conducting research for her doctorate she interviewed 2 Caucasian women who had gone through breast cancer at the same time she had. "I realized their experiences were very different from mine," says Brisbois. "So, I started to think that if their experiences were different from mine then, wow, what would someone else's experience be like?"

That thought sparked an idea for her dissertation. Brisbois became particularly interested in the issue of premature menopause brought on by chemotherapy, a common side effect that women being treated for breast cancer experience. She found that while there was a lot of research on the subject in non-Latina women, there wasn't much about the experiences of Latinas.

With the help of an American Cancer Society Doctoral Degree Scholarship in Cancer Nursing, Brisbois recruited 20 Latinas with breast cancer across 12 states for her dissertation. "I would not have been able to do the project to the extent I did without the scholarship — there is absolutely no way; the work would not have been as comprehensive."

Brisbois describes the experience of the Latinas she studied as "bigger than menopause." In addition to dealing with early menopause, the Latina women had many more physiological, psychological, and social issues going on at the same time.

For example, Brisbois discovered Latinas encountered significant barriers while going through breast cancer treatment. "I started to realize there were many disparities having to do with Latinas that caused worse outcomes than for white women." For example, 2 of the 20 study participants did not speak English. "They felt left behind in the system; they had a lot of difficulty navigating the health system."

Brisbois found that the women who had great relationships with their healthcare providers did better. But those who didn't, struggled. "Many women said their healthcare providers would say: ‘OK you are cancer free, what do you want me to do now?'" In this situation, Brisbois says, a lot of the women didn't advocate for themselves, "even though they described in my work that they had emotional symptoms — depression, anxiety, etc. — but they weren't screened for these issues."

Brisbois says better information about these types of problems and more Spanish language resources, such as Spanish-speaking support groups for women with breast cancer, are needed. For health policy, she says, "we need to answer: how do we make things more equitable?"
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More Research Updates
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