Women and Health

Thinking Prevention

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Emilia Uriarte and Mariluz Garcia are just the types of patients that Elmer Huerta loves to see. The first hasn't been to a doctor in 10 years; the second has been a faithful patient of the cancer prevention specialist for the past seven.

With Uriarte, he patiently explains in Spanish the value of a yearly Pap test as an early detection tool for cervical cancer and the importance of an annual mammogram and monthly breast self-exam -- especially now that she is three months past her 40th birthday. Huerta uses one of his favorite analogies to drive home the point that she needs to make this a yearly visit: You maintain your car to keep it running, don't you?

"So why not take ourselves in for our own tuneup?" says Uriarte, repeating the lesson that Huerta just imparted.

Garcia, meanwhile, can recite Huerta's advice by heart: The most important visit to the doctor is the one when you are well.

"I'm not sick. I just want to do prevention because you never know," says Garcia, 49.

Uriarte, of Frederick, and Garcia, of Rockville, are both patients of the Cancer Preventorium, a one-of-a-kind clinic that is part of the cancer institute at Washington Hospital Center. It is aimed at drawing in low-income Latino women, not for treatment but for prevention.

Huerta, the president this year of the American Cancer Society, used to be an oncologist in his native Peru. But he changed his focus in the late 1980s after seeing women with cancerous tumors bulging out of their breasts. "They didn't know anything about health," he said, "because they were ashamed to show anyone what was wrong and because they thought the absence of pain is the absence of anything wrong."

Many of these patients, however, knew the latest celebrity gossip, the subplots of every TV soap opera and the scores of every big soccer match. If radio and television were that powerful, Huerta recalls thinking, "would it be possible to sell health to the public through the media?"

In 1986, he began producing and then starring in a health education TV show in Lima; he discontinued the show in 1987 when he moved to the United States to complete a fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center. He began a medical residency program in Baltimore and started recording five-minute health-care spots on a Spanish-language radio station in Laurel. In 1994, the same year the Cancer Preventorium opened, Huerta created a live weekly television program on health promotion and disease prevention.

Today, Huerta's radio spots, called "Cuidando Su Salud" ("Taking Care of Your Health"), air daily on more than 120 stations in the United States and more than 350 in Latin America. His television program, "Hablemos de Salud" ("Let's Talk About Health"), is distributed nationally.

Three months ago, Huerta's local call-in program expanded to two hours after being syndicated nationally. Now called "Cita Con el Doctor" ("Appointment With the Doctor"), it reaches Latinos in 14 states five days a week.

Broadcasting from his cramped office at the Washington Cancer Institute one recent afternoon, "el doctor" fielded almost 20 inquiries, ranging from vertigo to cancer metastasis, from callers nationwide.

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