Soraya, 37; Singer Raised Breast Cancer Awareness

Times Staff Writer

The illness that killed her mother, grandmother and aunt transformed pop star Soraya.

The chart-topping singer/songwriter became a voice of hope in the fight against cancer by delivering a message in the United States and Latin America about preventive screening, treatment and the need to remove the stigma associated with the illness.

But in 2000, Soraya's crusade turned personal when she was diagnosed with the disease. That year, as she embarked on an aggressive treatment plan, she made a short video about her illness and promptly received 6,000 e-mails, many from women writing of their own battles with cancer.

"I never intended to be so public with my disease, but when I started reading the letters and saw how people reacted in such a personal way, I knew I had to continue sharing my story," she said.

Soraya, a 2004 Latin Grammy award winner who used her fame and talents to promote awareness of breast cancer, died of the disease Thursday in Miami, where she lived, said her publicist, Rondine Alcala. She was 37.

Throughout her illness, the singer found release and comfort in music, just as she had throughout her life.

Soraya, who was born in New Jersey, spent part of her childhood in Colombia, the birthplace of her parents. She wrote her first song and became enthralled with the guitar when she was 5. Later she studied and mastered classical violin. Her music was influenced by artists such as Carole King and sometimes reflected her father's Lebanese roots.

In 1996, Soraya debuted with the album "On Nights Like This/En Esta Noche" on Polygram Latino U.S./Island Records. Like other works, the album was released in English and in Spanish. It was a hit in Latin America and spent 12 weeks on Billboard's Top 10 Album chart in Germany. She was named one of Billboard's Top 10 Latin writers. Several of the songs were aired widely on soap operas in Latin America.

From the beginning, Soraya won praise for lyrics that were honest, rooted in family experiences and, one writer said, "unfettered by overproduction." It was a characteristic that developed after an epiphany while listening to Stevie Nicks.

"When I heard 'Landslide,' it was a turning point for me," Soraya told the Miami Herald in 1996. " 'Landslide' helped me write from a more personal point of view; it sort of helped me knock down that wall."

The debut album was dedicated to Soraya's mother, who died of breast cancer in 1992, and included a tribute song of the same title that provided inspiration to others who had suffered losses.

In the years that followed, Soraya found success with other recordings and joined the board of directors of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in Miami, a favorite charity.

In 2000, she was releasing a new album, "Cuerpo y Alma," and was packed to go on tour when she felt a lump under her arm. On June 5 that year, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease.

"If there was any irony, it was that this hit me when I was at the epitome of good health. I was running three to five miles a day, getting good rest, eating well and I was only 31," she told The Times.

The diagnosis forced her to place music on hold while she had a mastectomy with breast reconstruction, radiation and a year of chemotherapy. Some suggested that she not mention the illness.

"Sex appeal is a big part of what's used to sell records, and they were afraid this would affect that," she told The Times in 2003. "They were afraid it would put people off, but it did just the opposite."

The messages that Soraya received after making the video about her illness underscored the need to spread awareness -- particularly among Latinas, some of whom were afraid their husbands would leave if they had mastectomies.

Others feared treatment or lacked money for medical care.

Soraya, who was divorced and had no children, found the support she needed from her brother, father and extended family, who survive her, and a small group of close friends.

Songs such as "Almost" or "Casi" provided inspiration to women as Soraya expressed her own feelings of almost losing faith, almost falling apart, and of wondering, "Why me, why now, why this?"

"No One Else" (Por Ser Quien Soy) is an inspirational song of survival written while she was recovering and distributed in a Komen Foundation health kit.

"Came out of nowhere, shot through my heart now I'm breathing once again," Soraya sang in the song. "As I'm standing alone, face to face by myself, I thank the Lord I'm no one else."

"It's a song for survivors and for women who are going through this experience," Soraya told a reporter in 2002. "I think a lot of survivors will understand that moment of feeling like you just took your first breath of recovery."

In 2004, Soraya received a Latin Grammy for her album "Soraya" in the best singer-songwriter category. Last year, she released "El Otro Lado de Mi" (The Other Side of Me), which was nominated for a Latin Grammy.

In the months before her death, Soraya was writing about her experiences, another manifestation of her years-long commitment to the battle against breast cancer.

"If my face is on the cover of a magazine and people think, 'Oh, she's the one who got breast cancer,' that's good," she told a Times reporter in 2003. "I've started a dialogue. I've made it OK to talk about it."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction Soraya obituary: An obituary on the singer Soraya in the May 12 California section said she had died the previous Thursday, May 11. In fact, she died May 10, a Wednesday.
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