Elderly dance their way to cancer care

Senior citizens jumped from their folding chairs Thursday to dance the Macarena, placing their hands on their arms, ears and hips in time to the music.

The dance was part of a program designed to encourage seniors to be more active in detecting breast cancer at the Bernard Baruch Houses, the NYC Housing Authority complex on the Lower East Side filled with Chinese, African American and Latino residents, many of whom are immigrants.

The purpose of the dance, explained Dr. Marlena Vega, a psycho-oncologist and breast cancer survivor, was to help the residents realize that if you can touch yourself while dancing, you can touch yourself to do the breast self-exams that can help save lives.

There’s no shame in prevention, says Vega.

“I go to all the settlement houses and I talk about lifesaving mechanisms, but I make it fun,” said Vega, 69, founder of Sobrevivir/A Will to Live. “When they get depressed, they don’t act.”

The residents are like many older members of minority or immigrant groups. They’re at a double risk for complications from cancer due to late detection and weak community support for following through on prevention and treatment.

Women become less and less concerned with breast cancer detection as they age, even though they become more susceptible, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Susan G. Komen Foundation found that only about half of Asian women have mammograms every two years and many Latinos and African Americans are diagnosed at later stages than their white counterparts.

Vega believes that when she speaks of her own experience as a three-time cancer survivor and makes the information fun by dressing up and playing music, the seniors are more likely to sit and listen.

Though some responded to her urging with shy glances, many Baruch residents followed the dancing by mimicking Vega’s movements as she showed them how to feel for bumps in their breasts.

The program was simultaneously translated in Chinese and included a film, fun makeovers and testimonials from fellow residents who themselves had survived different types of cancer. The seniors also passed around a stream of pink, crinkly crepe paper, provoking inquisitive stares until Vega explained, “We make one long streamer line and if the room is bigger, we do a conga, and we dance to ‘I Will Survive’ and everybody supports one another with the ribbon. So, that means that we’re all inter-related and we’re all family and you’re healing me and I’m healing you.”

For more information on Sobrevivir/A Will To Live, visit marlenavega.com

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