This essay first appeared in The Texas Observer, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012.
Six years ago, my ob-gyn found two millimeters of cancerous cells on my cervix and told me that my uterus should be removed as a precaution. I steeled my nerves and decided I would not have the procedure. I was 38 years old. I wanted to keep my uterus, keep my body whole, keep all of my spirit. I’m not sure where this idea came from. I’d never considered myself a deeply spiritual or religious person. (Perhaps agnostic theist is the best term to describe my beliefs.)
As I pondered my response, I recalled my interview, years earlier, with Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California at Los Angeles. He told me that the Latino population’s medical needs were different from the Anglo population’s, citing attitudes toward heart transplants as an example.
“Hispanics believe, as did the pre-Columbian Nahua Indians, that the soul resides in the heart, and wonder whether a heart transplant recipient could become a different person after the operation,” he said.
I found it ridiculous at the time. But my experience with cancer—I was diagnosed with Stage 1A micro-invasive cervical cancer in 2005—has changed my mind. Today, with good reason, health care providers and researchers talk about the importance of cultural competency, the concept that the prevention and treatment of diseases are affected by the culture, gender, race and ethnicity of patients. In short, belief systems affect people’s attitudes toward disease and treatment, and to be effective, health care professionals have to understand these differences.
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