Dynamic Diaspora: Women and Immigration

Part: 1

Few Care for the Undocumented With Breast Cancer

Monday, March 15, 2010

Undocumented women with breast cancer in Arizona depend on community clinics and sliding scale fees to get services. For many, financial barriers and fear of deportation delay or prevent treatment, echoing problems nationwide.

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Getting ready for radiation treatmentIn some cases the women have migrated legally, said Murrieta, but since they have been in the country for less than five years they're ineligible for Medicaid coverage, available to low income people. When these women lose work after the farming season, they also lose their health insurance, making it difficult to obtain breast cancer treatment.

In Maricopa County, undocumented women who decide to seek surgery or need to receive chemotherapy treatment can turn to Healthcare Connect, a nonprofit in Phoenix.

The organization connects patients with hospitals and physicians that charge a discount rate. For example, the organization can find providers that will give chemotherapy treatment at 10 percent of its total cost.

But the organization has only one contracted surgeon who will perform mastectomies at a lower cost.

'It's Hard to Find a Doctor'

"It's hard to find a doctor willing to do it," said Brenda Cardenas, a customer care coordinator for the nonprofit that serves 3,200 members, many of them undocumented immigrants.

Cardenas said patients are vulnerable and depressed when they come asking for help because doctors have already told them that they cannot get treatment. Some choose to return to their home country, usually Mexico.

Researchers recognize that there is limited data about how undocumented immigrants cope with cancer diagnosis and the challenges they face.

A focus group study with 39 breast cancer survivors encountered discrimination in access to care for undocumented breast cancer patients in Phoenix.

"The results were disturbing," said Maureen Campesino, a professor of nursing and a registered nurse who led the research at the Arizona State University's College of Nursing.

She found that many of the women skipped treatment out of fear of losing their jobs, were denied services and some didn't want to ask for help due to fear of being deported.

Campesino also found that some of Arizona's enforcement immigrant policies further hampered women's access to care. For example, a law that sanctioned businesses that hire undocumented workers caused many to lose the jobs that helped them pay for discounted services without insurance.

"It added insult to injury," she said. "Families were trying to pay for it on their own, but then the political environment created another barrier."

More Access in Other States

Not all states are as hard as Arizona for undocumented women with breast cancer. California, for example, offers insurance coverage to low-income undocumented women under an extension of the federal Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program.

But expansion of this type of coverage at the federal level seems unlikely.

The leading health care reform bill in the Senate would prevent undocumented immigrants from purchasing affordable private insurance that they can buy now at high rates.

"It is counterintuitive," said Dr. Jane L. Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on advocacy and research on Latinos. "We have to approach it as a simple insurance question. If we have programs to get insurance cheaper we should allow them to buy it."

The health care system is broken for everybody, but immigrants have a heavier burden to navigate it, said Sonal Ambegaokar, a health policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, with headquarters in Los Angeles, California.

"It's really hard to think that we will pick and choose who gets to live or die because of their immigration status," she said.

Valeria Fernandez is an independent reporter that writes about immigrant communities in Phoenix, Arizona.

For more information:

Study: Counternarratives of Mexican-Origin Women with Breast Cancer:

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Series Overview

Dynamic Diaspora: Women and Immigration

Part: 12

Few Care for the Undocumented With Breast Cancer

Part: 11

Nebraska Prenatal Bill Stirs Fight Over Immigration

Part: 10

Visas Out of Hell: Women Need to Know They Exist

Part: 9

Deportation of Mothers in Iowa Tests Local Charity

Part: 8

Women's ESL Dominance Tied to Job Demands

Part: 7

For Street Vendor, Another Holiday in Shadows

Part: 6

Arrested Iowa Meat Packers Live in Legal Limbo

Part: 5

Battered Immigrants in Arizona Find Few Havens

Part: 4

Recession Shrinks Safety Net for Immigrant Women

Part: 3

Immigrant Survivors of Abuse Seek Freedom

Part: 2

U Visas Speed Up for Immigrants Who Flee Abuse

Part: 1

U Visa Recipients Look for Better Enforcement