Stop the Silence
Cancer survivor Cherry Sloan-Medrano works to encourage a conversation about cancer among Asians in the U.S.
By Jenny Song
When an oncologist told Cherry Sloan-Medrano in September 2008 that it was likely she had only five years to live after being diagnosed with stage III papillary thyroid cancer, she had just one response: “Well those may be the odds, but I’m not a statistic. I’m going to be around. Mark my words.”
Sloan-Medrano, a nurse and case manager who helps patients gain access to services at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, underwent surgery to remove her thyroid, one lymph node and some surrounding tissue in October 2008 and completed radiation in January 2009. Nearly seven years later she is still here, and sometimes she runs into that same oncologist in the halls of M. D. Anderson, where she also received treatment. Without fail, Sloan-Medrano, who stands just an inch over 5 feet tall, covers her eyes, smiles and says, “Don’t look at me. I’m a ghost.”
The veteran nurse has stayed strong through the years by not taking herself too seriously—even in the most difficult situations. She recalls the shock of learning she had cancer, despite undergoing annual ultrasounds for seven years to monitor nodules that often appeared in her neck. Sloan-Medrano—who helps guide patients through complex treatments, referrals and insurance benefits—accepts that cancer may very well take her life one day, but not until she’s done with a few things.
“I strongly believe that God has a mission for me and wants me to fulfill
something,” she says. “When that’s done, and He says come home, then I will
Sloan-Medrano learned the virtue of giving back early in life while growing up in the 1950s in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Her father, an attorney working in the Philippine government, made sure all of his eight children received good schooling, paying entirely for their college education so they would start off their adult lives without debt. He told his children to pay him back by taking care of each other, Sloan-Medrano recalls.
Through the pain of her cancer diagnosis, the dissolution of her first marriage in 1997, the joy of marrying her husband, Robert Medrano, in 2002 (especially after she swore never to marry again), and the sorrow of losing both her parents and a sister, who died of bile duct cancer in 2013, Sloan-Medrano and her siblings have kept the promise they made to their father. They have taken care of one another by providing emotional and financial support whenever one of them is in need.
Sloan-Medrano and her twin sister, Shirley Molitor, also a nurse, were 23 when they immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1973 after being recruited by the Ochsner Medical Foundation Hospital in New Orleans.
While working as a nurse, first in the Philippines and then in the U.S., Sloan-Medrano noticed a troubling trend. In her native country, she saw patients die of cancer who never knew they had the disease because family members or the patients’ medical teams kept the diagnosis from them. When she joined the local Houston chapter of the Asian Cancer Council—made up of Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Korean and Vietnamese health care professionals—she soon realized that Asians in the U.S. were not talking about cancer either. In fact, many Asians, especially Filipinos, erroneously believed, and still do, that cancer is contagious, a curse or a certain death sentence, says Sloan-Medrano.
To help dispel these dangerous misconceptions, she founded the Filipino Cancer Network of America–Metropolitan Houston in January 2008, eight months before she was diagnosed with cancer. The support group includes a mix of cancer survivors and nurses who meet quarterly to talk about health care issues and share personal stories about living with cancer, and to break through stereotypes and cultural barriers to getting access to cancer information.