"Language barriers means there can also be a struggle with...

"Language barriers means there can also be a struggle with … getting information" about health care, says Sandra Martinez, the new bilingual coordinator for the state breast cancer support program at Adelphi. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

As an immigrant from Colombia, Sandra Martinez has seen firsthand how the barrier of language can create difficulties in navigating the health care system.

She saw the hurdles her mother faced with something as simple as making a doctor's appointment and says those experiences will help guide her as the new bilingual outreach coordinator of the Adelphi NY Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline & Support Program — a grant and donation-funded program at Adelphi University whose full-time staff and volunteers help "educate, support, empower and advocate for breast cancer patients" not just on Long Island but throughout New York, even in remote areas.

In her new role, Martinez, of Valley Stream, will oversee coordination of the Sisters United in Health breast education program, or Hermanas Unidas en la Salud, which provides “community-based breast cancer outreach, education, and referrals for free or low-cost screenings in underserved communities across Long Island.”

"My role is to help people that [are] suffering or living with breast cancer — to empower people to get more information about the resources available," Martinez said this week, adding: "I have empathy, because my mom doesn't speak English very well, and when she had to go to the doctor, I know how difficult that is — especially, for the immigrant community, for the Latino community."

WHAT TO KNOW

Sandra Martinez is the new bilingual outreach coordinator of the Adelphi NY Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline & Support Program based at the Garden City university.

Martinez will oversee coordination of the Sisters United in Health breast education program, or Hermanas Unidas en la Salud, which provides “community-based breast cancer outreach, education, and referrals for free or low-cost screenings in underserved communities across Long Island.”

The breast cancer hotline and support program, which originated in 1980, is the oldest toll-free breast cancer hotline in the nation.

Expanding outreach program

Program executive director Reyna Machado says Martinez will play a vital role in expanding an outreach program that “has always responded to the needs of the community.” Said Machado: “She knows the challenges firsthand." 

The Adelphi breast cancer hotline and support program, which originated in 1980, is the oldest toll-free breast cancer hotline in the nation, the university said.

Housed at the School of Social Work on the Adelphi campus in Garden City, Machado says the program operates seven days a week, 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is staffed by seven full-time employees, one part-time employee and more than 60 volunteers, almost all of them breast cancer survivors — both women and men.

Funded through state, family and private grants and donations, the program took a huge funding hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, Machado said, but she's hopeful much-needed new funding is on the horizon for 2024. The program reached more than 6,500 state residents during 80 community outreach events in 2022, arranging professional counseling services for more than 1,100 patients, generating 160 early-detection referrals and educating more than 1,300 Spanish-speaking residents through the Sisters program.

The website reached more than 20,000 residents statewide seeking information.

For her part, Martinez understands the vital importance of expanding assistance to some of the most underserved minority communities.

Breast cancer rates

According to the latest statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 17,730 cases of female breast cancer were reported in New York in 2019. Of those, 2,130 were among Hispanic women, a rate of 113.9 per 100,000. Numbers show 2,532 cases, or 138.9 per 100,000, among Black non-Hispanic women, and 1,159, or 109.6 per 100,000, among women who were Asian or Pacific Islander. The CDC said numbers for Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the state had been “suppressed” — at the request of New York.

The state Department of Health reported that from 2015 to '19, the latest statistics available, the incidence rates for female breast cancer on Long Island were 1,344 cases per 100,000 in Nassau and 1,363 per 100,000 in Suffolk. Breakdowns by ethnicity and for men were not available.

“People are sometimes afraid,” Martinez said of those either diagnosed — or concerned about being diagnosed — with breast cancer.

As she said: “There is not just lack of understanding, but a lack of access to resources — and language barriers means there can also be a struggle with information, with getting information … Sometimes, people [don't] know what information is there and we will empower people to get more information.”

Born and raised in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Martinez earned her bachelor’s in social communications and journalism at a university there, then emigrated to the United States in 1997, joining her mother in Jackson Heights, Queens. After getting married, she lived in East Elmhurst before moving to Valley Stream. She has one son.

For the past 16 years, Martinez has worked for the Child Care Council of Nassau as a bilingual parent counselor, assisting parents with information-gathering to help them meet their child care needs. She also has worked as a researcher and writer — both in Bogotá and in the United States — for various Spanish-language media.

“For me, I have this opportunity to help people — help that can make a difference in their lives — and that is a big motivation for me,” Martinez said. “I think it is very important to be passionate, to be passionate about what you do, and I am passionate to help people get the information they need, to help others.”

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