Talking About Breast Cancer: Two Latina Mother-Daughter Duos Discuss Generational Differences

Enma Morel was 23 years old when she began to feel sharp pain in her chest. When it didn’t go away after a month, she scheduled an appointment with her doctor. “They checked everything,” Morel, now 63, tells Refinery29 over a video interview. “But my blood, my heart, everything came back normal.”
Even though she had “basically zero” knowledge about breast cancer, and despite not feeling any sort of lump or mass, which is commonly and incorrectly considered the one and only symptom of breast cancer, she felt compelled to ask for a mammogram out of precaution. Her doctor said she was too young to undergo the screening, but Morel insisted.
Three days after her mammogram, she got a call from the doctor’s office. Breast cancer was, in fact, found. The disease doesn’t always present as a mass or lump; it can also show up in the form of breast swelling, skin irritation, nipple discharge, and in Morel’s case, pain. “I was really mad,” Morel said. “I thought, Why me?”
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most forms of breast cancer occur in older women, but the disease does affect younger women, too — CDC reports that about 9% of new breast cancer cases in the U.S. are found in women under the age of 45. Breast cancer in young women is more likely to be hereditary, found at a later stage, aggressive, and difficult to treat. Having a family history of some types of cancer, including breast and ovarian cancers, are risk factors, which is why learning about your full family health history — and visiting a doctor to come up with a management plan — is crucial. It's worth noting that there are other risk factors outside of having a family history of cancer, and CDC’s Bring Your Brave campaign provides helpful resources and information about breast cancer risk, signs, and symptoms for young women.
Discussing breast cancer and your family's health history is particularly important in Latina communities, which Morel is part of (she immigrated to America from the Dominican Republic when she was 11). In the U.S., breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among Hispanic women. Many things can contribute to this, like lack of access to adequate medical care (which can affect one’s ability to get regular appointments and follow-up care), cultural or religious beliefs, socioeconomic factors, and more.
After the initial diagnosis, Morel, now a social worker and a mother of two grown daughters, was diagnosed with breast cancer twice more throughout her life. While it’s still difficult to talk about with her daughters — “I just don’t want them to worry,” she says — she exercises a greater degree of transparency regarding cancer than what she was used to growing up, even allowing her daughters to accompany her to treatments and encouraging them to talk to their healthcare providers about their breast cancer risk.
That generational shift is echoed by Cuban-American mother-daughter duo Alina Olaechea (74) and Aliette Arner (45), both of whom survived breast cancer but differ slightly in the ways (and frequency) they discuss the disease with their respective children and communities. “I am proactive and talk about breast cancer with my 16-year-old daughter all the time,” says Arner. “It is [a frequent] conversation we have. She needs to be aware [of her risk], and talking about it is a part of that.”
Below, both pairs open up about their shared experiences with breast cancer, why it’s important to know that the disease doesn’t just affect women of older generations, and how talking about it among family members — no matter how difficult it may be — is essential. (Knowing your family history of cancer can help you understand your risk and make a plan to manage it with your doctors.) Read on to see how conversations about breast cancer are evolving within Latina culture.

Enma Morel (mother) and Iraniss Morel-Dziengeleski (daughter)

Growing up, was breast cancer discussed within your family? Did you talk openly about your medical history?
Enma: “Breast cancer — and cancer in general — was never talked about in my family because it was something that was considered ‘shameful.’ They talked about smaller ailments, like fevers, but never cancer. I was the first one to get it and I didn’t want them to be like, ‘You have that?’ Plus, I wasn’t sure if it was my fault, and I didn’t want my mother to worry. (She worried about her kids a lot.) So, when I was first diagnosed, at age 23, I kept it to myself. And I went through everything — even treatment — by myself. I think cancer was a sort of stigma [in my community]. If it happened to you, especially if you were Catholic, you may have felt that it was punishment for having done something wrong.”
Iraniss: “As far back as I can remember, breast cancer was a part of my life [because my mother had it]. I remember the walks, the pink pins. And I started talking to my doctor about my medical history and my risk for breast cancer in my 20s. That’s also when I started getting regular mammograms [as a preventive measure recommended by my doctor]. I wouldn’t have gotten them then had my mom not encouraged me to [talk to my doctor] — and I feel lucky about that. Still, though, she has a tendency to not talk about her feelings. Her third and most recent breast cancer diagnosis, in 2021, wasn’t communicated to my sister and me at all. It was very hard to be kept in the dark. Not talking about breast cancer is like being robbed of time — robbed of time to talk about it, robbed of time to learn about it.”
How do you hope to bridge gaps between generations of Latinas and lessen the stigma surrounding breast cancer? How does talking openly about risks — and the disease in general — play into that?
E: “Because breast cancer was such a big part of my life starting at an early age, my daughters became naturally ingrained in it. When they were teenagers, I encouraged them to talk to their doctors about their breast cancer risks. It’s important for me to remove the stigma about breast cancer within our family, but it was — and still is — difficult for me to talk about my personal experience with it and feelings about it. I just don't want my family to worry."
I: “I do feel like the way breast cancer is discussed is changing generationally, but I still feel we should talk about it more — or at least differently. It’s sometimes like, ‘Oh, God will save you.’ Sure, we can go down that route, but you also need proper medical care. Talking about family medical history helps. And knowing that breast cancer does affect young women is essential. Being [proactive about your health at an early age] saves lives. I mean, look at my mom.”

Alina Olaechea (mother) and Aliette Arner (daughter)

You’ve both survived breast cancer, but you were diagnosed at different ages. Were there differences in the way you coped with the disease and communicated your feelings about it among your family members?
Alina Olaechea: “Breast cancer was a big part of my family growing up: My mom, my sister, and my aunt all had it. Plus, my father had prostate cancer around the same time. The disease was treated as something that wasn’t ‘dramatic,’ just something you dealt with. Years later, when I was diagnosed, it was scary at first, but I adopted a similar mindset as my older relatives: I just thought, Okay, what do I do next? When I told my children about it, it was a casual conversation — I didn’t even shed a tear. Even though I didn’t express a lot of emotion about it, I still knew it was important to be open about my diagnosis with them.”
Aliette Arner: “When I was younger, my childhood friend’s mother passed away from breast cancer. And my grandmother and mother were both diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in my late teens. When I was younger, it was easy to go to a ‘dark’ place about it. When I was later diagnosed with breast cancer myself, and throughout my treatment at the Miami Cancer Institute, my attitude was like, ‘Okay, let’s tackle this and move on.’ But when I first talked to my daughter about it (she was in sixth grade at the time), we cried together. I told her that I knew how it felt to be the kid whose parent had cancer. And now, we talk about it all the time. She needs to know her risks."
Do you find that younger generations of Latinas are talking about breast cancer differently — and more frequently — in comparison to previous ones?
AA: “Since I’ve gotten more involved in the breast cancer community, I notice that more and more [Latinas] are openly discussing breast cancer and viewing it as something that’s not so taboo. [With the older generation], I think they want to keep it ‘hush-hush,’ maybe so as not to bring added stress to other family members, especially their children. But you have to talk about it — it's the first step."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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