When Cecilia Gonzalez De La Hoya walked into White Memorial Medical Center 12 years ago suffering from advanced breast cancer, she typified many women in her East Los Angeles community who are uninformed about the disease and seek treatment too late.
She died two years later at the age of 39, leaving three children and her husband to mourn a life cut down in its bloom. One of those children became a boxing sensation and on Wednesday his charitable foundation contributed $350,000 to White Memorial's cancer center, which was named in her honor.
Oscar De La Hoya's gift will help expand outreach, education and screening programs at the new facility. It features some of the most sophisticated diagnostic equipment in Southern California, a breast cancer support group conducted in Spanish and a community resource center containing books, videos and educational materials.
"This is for you, for the community," Oscar De La Hoya said. "It's up to kids, fathers and . . . mothers to be schooled by people who know about this dreaded disease."
Joining him at the dedication ceremony were his sister Cecilia, brother Joel Jr., and father Joel Sr.
Doctors hope the Cecilia Gonzalez De La Hoya Center will encourage early detection and help to curtail advanced cancer rates that strike particularly hard in minority communities. In Los Angeles County, Latinas lag other ethnic groups in early detection of breast cancer, according to state health statistics. Early diagnosis is associated with a higher survival rate.
The obstacles in the Latino community include cultural and economic issues, said health experts.
"There is sometimes a fatalistic view of life and self-denial involved," said Miguel A. Martinez, urology chairman at White Memorial and a friend of the De La Hoya family. "Sometimes there is hope that religion will take over and provide a miracle. And there is a lack of knowledge about what cancer is and how it starts. In our communities, our diets sometimes contribute to health problems."
Transportation problems often prevent many poorer Latinos from getting needed treatment, said Steve Engle, director of cancer services at the hospital, which is located on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. "It's an enormous issue that we had to do something about," Engle said. "We've set a up a system where we'll go and pick up patients at their homes to transport them to and from the facility."
The center also offers free breast exams, mammograms and treatment to women who are underinsured or have no insurance.
After Wednesday's dedication, the De La Hoya family toured the facility for the first time--accompanied by a throng of media cameras. Inside they placed in a lobby a large, gold-framed portrait of Cecilia De La Hoya--a young woman with a captivating smile, soft brown curls and the same penetrating, dark eyes as her children. She died as her son trained for the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, where he eventually won a gold medal in the lightweight division. He went on to win several titles, including the World Boxing Council welterweight crown, which he lost last year in a controversial decision to Felix Trinidad of Puerto Rico.
On Wednesday, his family said Oscar carried into the ring many of the values his mother instilled in him.
Cecilia De La Hoya's daughter, who is named after her and called Ceci by the family, recalled a mother who was nurturing but firm.
"When my brothers overstepped their boundaries she never hesitated to punch them in the stomach, maybe that's where Oscar got his boxing talent," she said, as her brother stood near.
But she wept when she said her mother never let on to the excruciating pain she was experiencing.
"I have often pondered why God had to take my mother so soon," said Ceci. "Today I finally understand one aspect is to alleviate some of the burden of people with breast cancer. Now we have a physical symbol of my mother's memory and we are reminded of her with every happy story."