SUNSET PARK — Melissa Ortiz’s decision to get vaccinated to protect herself against COVID-19 in 2021 turned out to be a choice that saved her life.
When she underwent health screenings to make sure she had no underlying medical conditions that could cause a negative reaction to the vaccine, doctors discovered something else. She had breast cancer.
Ortiz was diagnosed with Stage 1 Ductal Carcinoma and underwent a lumpectomy. “It was caught early, thank God,” she said.
She was prescribed tamoxifen, a medication she will have to take for the next five years.
Grateful her cancer was caught early, Ortiz, 52, has now made it her mission to raise awareness of the importance of early detection and the various treatment options available for women. She has performed this mission even for her own family.
After Ortiz was diagnosed in 2021, two of her cousins got mammograms and discovered they, too, had breast cancer.
One way she is raising awareness is by organizing gatherings like the “Survivor and Remembrance Prayer Service” at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sunset Park on Friday, Oct. 21. The date also marked National Mammography Day.
The prayer service took place amid the backdrop of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is celebrated every October.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer will account for 30% of all new cancer diagnoses in women in the U.S. in 2022. The society estimated that by the time this year is over, 287,850 women will have been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and 43,250 women will die.
A recurring theme throughout the hour-long prayer service was the importance of breast cancer screenings.
Daysie Naclerio was diagnosed in 2004 and underwent mastectomies of both breasts.
“It was very hard. But I got through it. I prayed a lot,” she said. “I thank God every day I’m still alive.”
Naclerio, who wore a pink sweatshirt to the prayer service, brought her neighbor, Virginia Coppola, who sported a pink ribbon. Throughout the month of October, supporters wear pink ribbons to honor breast cancer survivors and victims.
The lower church of the basilica, where the service took place, was a sea of pink Friday night. The altar was draped with pink and white banners containing supportive words like “Hope, determination, and together, we win.” Each pew was decorated with a large pink bow.
Nydia Acaba came to the service to pray for two of her friends — who are sisters — who are battling breast cancer. Because of them, “I always make sure I go for my mammogram every year,” she said.
A highlight of the service was the testimonies of breast cancer survivors, all of whom implored the attendees to get regular mammograms, look in on friends with cancer, and trust in God to get through the tough times.
Gladys Bruno has survived two bouts with breast cancer, first in 2002 and then again in 2019. She said that advances in detection and treatment have made things somewhat easier for patients, “Back then,” she said, referring to 2002, “it was like you can’t talk about it. It’s more open now. There’s so much we can do now — mostly, believe in God.”
Father James Gilmour, pastor of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who led the prayer service, touched upon the theme of God helping people in their darkest hours. He read Matthew 11:28-30. “All of you who labor, come to me. I will give you rest.”
Offering cancer patients emotional support is important, Ortiz said. “Cancer patients need a community. They are often lonely. When you are alone is when you reflect the most,” she explained to the audience.
She recalled times when she would be lying in bed staring at the ceiling. “I wondered how many other women were going through this,” she added.
Bruno said self-care is important, too. She urged women to get annual screenings like mammograms and sonograms, which she described as lifesavers.
“That’s what saves our lives,” she added, “checking ourselves every year.”
Pleased with the way her first event went, Ortiz said she hopes to make the prayer service an annual gathering.
** The website freemammograms.org has a state-by-state breakdown of groups providing mammograms.
** The American-Italian Cancer Foundation, working in partnership with the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center, sponsors the Mammogram Bus, a fully equipped van that travels to neighborhoods throughout New York City to offer free mammograms and clinical breast exams. For information on the upcoming schedule, call 877-628-9090 or visit addabbo.org/news/no-cost-mammography-bus/