When Dora Arias walks her dogs on the leafy streets in her Mountainside, New Jersey, neighborhood, she always stops to chat with the landscape workers tending the lawns and flower beds. "Do you have a wife or a sister?" she asks in Spanish. "Do they need a free mammogram? I'd be more than happy to help."
Dora, 49, is constantly looking for women affected by breast cancer, particularly those who are uninsured and lack access to medical care. Since founding the nonprofit organization Curémonos in 2007, she has helped hundreds obtain breast cancer screenings and, when necessary, treatment and financial aid.
Curémonos means "healing together," and as Dora sees it, the fight against breast cancer takes a village. The group offers interpretation services and Spanish-language support programs, and educates medical residents and care providers on the needs of the Latina community. Prevention is also part of Dora's mission, which is why she teaches free classes on the importance of breast health and early detection at community centers and homeless shelters. "Cancer is always difficult, but the poor have a whole other battle to deal with," she says. "I've been fortunate, and I want to give back to those who are less so, whether they're white, black or Latina."
Dora's dedication was inspired by her own harrowing bout with cancer. A Colombian immigrant who came to the U.S. as a child with her widowed mother, she settled in New York City, where she graduated from the College of Mount Saint Vincent. Dora was 37 when, during a routine visit to the gynecologist, she learned that her dense breast tissue increased her risk of developing the disease. Even though she was under 40, the doctor strongly advised annual mammograms, starting immediately. The first came back normal. A year later, she thought of skipping her appointment. "I made the usual excuses — I feel fine, I don't have a lump, I'm too busy," says Dora, then an analyst at J.P. Morgan. Her husband, David, a director at a financial services firm, insisted she go. That mammogram showed an abnormality, and a biopsy revealed ductal carcinoma in situ in her right breast. Dora was overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty. "I remember praying, 'God, just let me live to see my daughters graduate from high school,'" she says.
After undergoing a mastectomy and breast reconstruction in July 2003, Dora returned to her job that October. Two years later she retired to spend more time with daughters, Gabriela and Daniela, then 10 and 15. But Dora soon grew restless. She volunteered to run a hospital program that encouraged cancer patients to share their experiences with medical students and residents.
It was rewarding, but Dora couldn't stop wondering how disadvantaged women could possibly cope with a diagnosis, especially when she herself had gone into such an emotional tailspin. Poring over research, she learned that low-income, uninsured Latinas and other minorities are more likely to avoid screenings, leading to delayed diagnoses. As a result, their survival rate is significantly lower than that of whites. "In our culture, discussing breast cancer is taboo, and women often hide it from their husbands," Dora explains. "I tried to conceal mine from my girls, confessing only after Daniela eavesdropped while I was on the phone with my doctor."
In 2007 Dora stopped volunteering and began working from her dining room table to build Curémonos. She asked various organizations to sponsor the group, only to be turned down again and again. "I wanted to give up, but David said, 'You can't quit now, after you've done so much,'" Dora recalls. "I had worked hard, sometimes even neglecting my family, but they were proud of me."
She incorporated Curémonos as a nonprofit in 2009 and started spreading the news to breast cancer doctors. They began referring Spanish-speaking patients to Dora, who connected them to specialists willing to reduce or waive their fees. She became a certified patient navigator, guiding people through the complex health care system to help ensure timely diagnosis and treatment. Last year Ford Motor Company's breast cancer awareness campaign, Warriors in Pink, named Dora a Model of Courage. She also spoke on Capitol Hill in support of the Breast Cancer Patient Education Act, aimed at informing women about the reconstructive options available to them after a mastectomy.
Dora is lukewarm about the limelight but passionate about Curémonos. "We know exactly where to send people and what support programs are out there," says Dora, who relies on a core group of five volunteers. One of them is Izaida Rosa-Garbanzo, 53, who was in constant pain after undergoing a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Dora steered her to a nurse who gave Izaida two specially designed bras, and to the Curémonos group at the Y, where she learned to swim, which helps stretch her chest muscles. This summer Dora paid the travel expenses so that Izaida could take a training course in Washington, D.C., to become a breast cancer peer counselor. "She spoke up for me, and I want to speak up for others," says Izaida, who works at the same landscaping business as her husband. "Dora's energy is contagious."
There's certainly no slowing her down. Earlier this year Dora had another scare when an MRI revealed an abnormality in her left breast. She had the precancerous cells removed and will be monitored closely for 12 months. "The experience highlighted for me how there's absolutely no time to lose," says Dora. "It has given even more meaning to my life — and to Curémonos, my life's work."
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.