By Lizette Robles - September 14, 2020
For Viviam Sifontes, a clinical trials navigation educator at Moffitt Cancer Center, Hispanic Heritage Month is not only a celebration of her past, but also a salute to her future. Sifontes was born in Caracas, Venezuela and moved to the United States when she was 14. She is part of the largest minority group in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 18% of the population identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino in 2018. Over the next four decades, the Hispanic population in the U.S. is expected to double.
During her near six-year tenure at Moffitt, Sifontes has helped educate the community – in large part the Hispanic community – about cancer prevention and the importance of participating in clinical trials, a topic she is all too familiar with.
In 2007 while pursuing her second master’s degree at a university in Spain, she fell ill with what she thought was a stomach bug. But when her symptoms did not improve after taking over-the-counter medication, she went to a local clinic. After numerous scans, doctors discovered a spot on her lower intestines. A biopsy came back positive for adenocarcinoma, cancer of the small intestine. She underwent a few rounds of chemotherapy with minimal side effects, eventually graduated from school and returned to the U.S.
“I was in remission in less than six months,” Sifontes said.
Since her journey with cancer was seemingly “easy” and she was thousands of miles away from her family, she didn’t want them to worry.
“I kept it a secret until I became sick again,” admitted Sifontes.
Towards the end of 2008, she started experiencing a different type of pain.
“I could not move, and I was very tired,” Sifontes recalled. “I would be sitting at a red light and I would fall asleep. People would have to honk to wake me up and realize I had to drive.”
This time, doctors diagnosed her with an aggressive form of rheumatoid arthritis, likely a long-term side effect of her previous cancer treatment. Only when she faced a new course of chemotherapy did she finally confess to her family that she had survived cancer.
“These new medications kicked my behind,” Sifontes shared. “I vomited; I lost my hair; I experienced everything I didn’t go through with cancer.”
When the time came to tell her family, she described it as an emotional roller costar.
“One of my daughters was very angry. The other daughter was very sad, very anxious thinking I was going to die. My husband froze. He didn’t know what to say or what to do.”
Looking back at her journey, Sifontes has become a huge advocate for disclosing a diagnosis to loved ones.
“It’s a huge load to carry on your own,” Sifontes said. “You can’t protect others by keeping it silent and I thought I was protecting my family. I later discovered that I was not, it was totally the opposite.”
Cancer is the leading cause of death among Hispanics in the United States, accounting for 21% of deaths according to the American Cancer Society. Among Hispanic men, prostate, colorectal and lung cancers are the most commonly diagnosed diseases, whereas Hispanic women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast, thyroid and uterine cancers.
“We Hispanics hold onto many taboos and many misconceptions,” Sifontes said. “You have to open your mind to different, more accurate information. Cancer is not a synonym for death.”
Sifontes now urges others to take proactive steps towards their health and wellness.
“You must go to the doctor. You should get routine cancer screenings when they say you need them. Prevention for any type of disease, especially cancer, is fundamental,” Sifontes said.
Throughout Hispanic Heritage Month, Moffitt will host a series of virtual events, presented in Spanish, aimed at educating the Hispanic community about cancer prevention and early detection. For a complete list of upcoming educational workshops, visit Moffitt.org/calendar.
Ciberseminarios de Latinos y el cáncer
- 9/15 – Una celebración de nuestra herencia y salud
- 9/19 – El cáncer de próstata
- 9/23 – El cáncer de pulmón
- 9/26 – Los tipos de cáncer de la sangre
- 9/30 – El cáncer digestivo
- 10/3 – Los tipo de cáncer en la mujer
- 10/7 – El cáncer de riñón
- 10/10 – El cáncer de tiroides
- 10/14 – La alimentación y el cáncer
- 10/17 – Resumen e información adicional