Seattle resident and breast cancer survivor Martha Zuniga
Seattle resident and breast cancer survivor Martha Zuniga — dressed in the authentic Aztec dance outfit she often wears during outreach events — works tirelessly to spread the message of breast health and cancer prevention, especially to Latinas and lesbian women.

Breast cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to Martha Zuniga.

The self-described butch lesbian Latina had spent years volunteering at area health fairs and community events, educating other Latinas and members of the LGBTQ community about breast cancer awareness, prevention, and the resources available to them. In fact, Zuniga was manning a booth at Gay City’s Rainbow Health Fair in Seattle in the summer of 2015 when she got her free annual mammogram from a Susan G. Komen Puget Sound mobile mammogram unit.

Zuniga didn’t expect to get a call back from the doctor. After a series of follow-up procedures and appointments, she received the devastating news.

“It went from, ‘It’s probably nothing,’ to ‘You’ve got cancer,’” says Zuniga, now 54. To add insult to injury, both her sister and mother were also diagnosed with breast cancer less than a month later.

Zuniga underwent 38 sessions of radiation treatment to her chest, and later opted for a double mastectomy to reduce the chance of recurrence. And while the experience was stressful and at times overwhelming, it only underscored Zuniga’s commitment to help bring awareness and resources to the underserved women in her community.

Missed Messages

While breast cancer awareness campaigns – with their ubiquitous pink ribbons and fundraising events – are good reminders to women to schedule annual mammograms and perform self-exams, the message isn’t reaching everyone. The 2016 LGBTQ Breast Health Initiative research project funded by Komen Puget Sound – the local branch of the national breast cancer organization — revealed some sobering statistics: only 60 percent of LGBTQ people aged 50-74 had received their recommended mammogram in the prior two years, compared with 76 percent of the general population in the Puget Sound region who did so.

And according to Komen Puget Sound’s most recent Community Profile Report, African American, Hispanic White and American Indian/Alaskan Native individuals have the highest proportions of breast cancers diagnosed at an advanced stage.

Komen relies on the support of individuals and agencies big and small – such as Premera Blue Cross – who donate time and money to help Komen help further their advocacy. Premera has long supported many of Komen’s initiatives, such as this summer’s “Steals for the Cure” fundraiser with the Seattle Mariners.

“Part of reason women are dying from breast cancer is they don’t have access to mammograms, or they can’t afford insurance, copays and deductibles,” says David Richart, executive director of Komen Puget Sound. “Our goal is to break down those barriers so no one has trouble getting the care they need.”

Zuniga sees this disparity first-hand. Since her cancer diagnosis, she has spent much of her free time (she also works two jobs as a medical case manager for people living with HIV) volunteering at Komen-sponsored breast health outreach events at area nonprofits, encouraging women to have mammograms, and helping them access financial resources. She often interacts with Latinas who are culturally conditioned to avoid seeking medical care for themselves.

“It’s part of our culture to take care of the people around us and not think of ourselves first,” says Zuniga, a native of Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Modesty, language barriers, the cost of copays and fears of repercussions relating to their legal status further complicate matters.

And for lesbian Latinas, says Zuniga, the issue is compounded.

“Many have been suppressing the issue of their femininity their whole lives,” says Zuniga. “It’s not easy for them to talk about breast care with their doctors.”

Premera Support

The money Komen Puget Sound passes on in grants to agencies like Cancer Lifeline comes from a number of sources. In addition to money raised through well-known events such as Race for the Cure and the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, much of Komen’s funding comes from corporate donations. Premera Blue Cross has close ties with Komen Puget Sound, most recently raising more than $30,000 for the nonprofit through its “Steals for the Cure” partnership with the Seattle Mariners.

The Komen-Premera partnership was a natural one, says Jim Havens, Premera’s senior vice president. Havens and his wife have supported Komen personally, and participated in Komen events and fundraisers, ever since they lost a close friend to breast cancer 20 years ago. Havens also served on Komen Puget Sound’s board of directors for eight years, including seven years as board president. Professionally, Premera’s vision of healthcare dovetailed well with Komen’s mission of promoting early detection, education and awareness.

“It’s a natural fit for Premera and our brand,” says Havens. “Healthcare just works better when Komen is involved.”

Spreading the Message Through Dance

Today, two years after her breast cancer diagnosis, Zuniga shows no evidence of disease. She continues to connect with lesbians and Latinas at outreach events, often incorporating an elaborate Aztec dance outfit as a way to break the ice.

A member of traditional Aztec dance group Ce Atl Tonalli, Zuniga performs often at ceremonies, cultural engagements and workshops throughout the Seattle area. At breast health events, the ensemble — comprised of colorful feathers, beads and shells — gets women’s attention and gives Zuniga a chance to start a conversation about breast exams and self-care. It also brings Zuniga great joy.

“When I wear my outfit, I feel the pride of being Latino; the pride of my ancestors,” says Zuniga. “It fills me completely.”

Zuniga’s dedication to helping other women in her community is recognized by Komen’s Richart, whose path crosses Zuniga’s often.

“Very few women can go through cancer unscathed. Martha is an incredibly upbeat person who still gives so much to the Latina and gay community,” says Richart. “’Warrior’ is what we at Komen call women like Martha.”