2017 Hope and Grace Fund Recipient: Circulo de Vida

May 31, 2017

It’s May, which means it’s time to introduce you to this year’s Hope & Grace Initiative Grant Recipients! This illustrative list of community leaders and initiatives are making great strides in the field of mental health, shining a light and improving lives every single day. We’re proud to assist them in their goals, and to that end are proud to announce that this round of grant recipients brings us to over 3 million dollars granted in just three short years. It’s our honor to help these initiatives pave the way to a brighter future for mental health.

We’d like to introduce you to our grant recipients, and today’s feature is on Circulo de Vida, a cancer support and resource center in San Francisco, CA. Carmen Ortiz, Executive Director, took some time to tell everyone a bit more about this amazing program:


“Circulo de Vida started years ago after I got involved with a cancer community organization here in San Francisco. They were an English-speaking organization that wanted to start a Spanish-language support group for Latinas. So, I became involved, left for a while, and came back to find the person who was facilitating the group had left. The executive director asked me to take over the group on a temporary basis. When I got there, there were only three people in the support group. I changed a bunch of things, made it more culturally specific, and tripled the number in about six months. Also, I’m a survivor, which I think made a difference to the women who came to the group; it’s important to have someone leading a cancer support group who is also a survivor of cancer. It continues to be an important part of what we do even today: nobody understands cancer like another person who has cancer, and no one can understand or speak to the particular cultural closeness as a fellow Latina helping another through this experience.

When that organization closed, I took the group with me and with some seed funding started Circulo de Vida as a cancer support center. We started with one support group which expanded to two and then three, and then started home and hospital visits for women who were unable to come to our center. We then started our partnership with San Francisco General Hospital at their first clinic, which exists today. I’m there every Tuesday afternoon. If a Latina is to receive news of her cancer diagnosis, I’m there with the doctors when she gets it. Then the doctors leave, and I stay behind to offer our services.

My model is based on early intervention: I think the sooner you provide services, the better. It reduces the anxiety, depression, and the impact of hearing the news of the diagnosis. When I identify myself as a survivor, you can see the change in their face. Once I see them at their diagnosis, I hand them off to one of our “Angelitas,” a name given to our supporting counselors who work with the women throughout their diagnosis, treatment, and then after treatment if necessary. We’re there from diagnosis until they don’t need us anymore. We see about 200 people a year

We’ve also expanded our services to include support for the children of our young Latina mothers diagnosed with cancer. We provide services for kids ages 3 to 15 because they’re also impacted: they become depressed, their grades decline, etc. We felt it really important to not only help the mothers but also assist them in dealing with their kids’ response to their illness. We help mothers prepare their kids for any changes that might take place, like hair loss or changes in appearance. Things like that help lessen depression and anxiety in children who are also impacted by their mother’s illness.

I should mention that we also offer our services to Latinas who are living with other cancer diagnoses. When women are referred to us by the oncology clinic at San Francisco General, we take them gladly. We serve all cancers, not just breast cancer. We also work with the entire family, which a lot of programs do not do. Also, our counselors are available day and night; our clients can call us at any time. If a woman is having symptoms of dehydration in the middle of the night, we want to know about it. I can’t tell you how many women we’ve referred to the hospital in the nick of time because they felt comfortable enough to call us. That connection is important; it saves lives.

We’re very excited to have been named a hope & grace grant recipient! We’ve developed a program with our research partner, the California Breast Cancer Research Project, which is a ten-week stress management program that helps women understand their diagnosis, surgery, and treatment — everything about their cancer. The program helps women understand their diagnosis, the impact of a cancer diagnosis, the symptoms and strategies for dealing with the resulting depression and/or anxiety which include relaxation techniques and how to become active participants in their treatment. We focus a lot on how to ask the doctors questions because Latinas sometimes feel if they ask questions they’re being disrespectful. We tested the training model with newly-diagnosed women who received our program against women who had not and found women who’d received the program fared much better. Those who received the program close to their diagnosis handled depression and anxiety much better and learned how to manage their symptoms. They felt more in control, which was important.

I should mention that we went back and offered the program to the women who didn’t receive it after six months.

Due to the success of the program, we decided to translate it for women in rural communities. These women who have cancer in rural communities tend to be isolated, under-insured or have no insurance, and lack access to psychosocial or psycho-oncology support programs. Some must travel long distances to receive care, which is costly. The funding from hope & grace is going to allow us to do is to train breast cancer survivors to provide this ten-week program to women in these rural communities who have a cancer diagnosis. Expanding our program to these additional rural communities is really awesome; we’re very excited about it!

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis has an effect on both your physical and mental health. People go through a pretty deep depression; they fear dying, sometimes don’t sleep at night, their appetite is affected, and some isolate themselves from social situations. Depression and anxiety are what we see primarily with our group of women, and the greatest sacrificial structure we see is poverty. A lot of these women are low income, and if they can’t work they have no income coming in. They work 2-3 jobs, so they don’t have vacation time or sick time, they can’t apply for disability, and if two people are working in the family and one of them is unable to work it really impacts the family.

When it comes to many Latinas, the cultural aspect also adds stress. Many don’t understand a lot of what the doctor is saying to them, particularly because a lot of doctors use family members as an interpreter. It’s important for a Latina to connect not only with a survivor but someone who comes from the same culture who speaks the same language. That level of comfort will help you feel more confident expressing some of your innermost feelings and concerns.

Also, I feel I should mention that doctors using family members is one of the biggest fights I have with the medical community. Medical professionals, please do not use family members to interpret. They censor a lot of things in order to protect their loved ones.

In terms of the future, we’re going to need a bigger space. We’re hoping to have our own building someday in order to hold our own wellness and cooking classes, things not really available to Latinos because they’re all in English. Also, we’re going to have a male intern coming on later this month, so we’ll start our men’s program again, which we’re very excited about. We’ll be providing men with the same services that we provide women.

My advice to other Latinas out there who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis? Reach out to their community. Also, be sure to bring positive people into your life, and get rid of those negative people. Learn everything you can about your diagnosis: ask your children to help you access the internet if you need to do so.

Circulo de Vida is here to help, even if you’re not in our area. We also do a lot of telephone counseling for people who live in other cities and our counselors will call them a couple of times a week to check on them. We send them information and help them look for resources in their cities that can hopefully help them. We’re also on the web.”