Raised by a single mother—an immigrant from Mexico—Alejandra Campoverdi credits her upbringing for playing a pivotal role in her career. This experience is at the root of why she went into public service and eventually filled the role of deputy director of Hispanic media during the first four years of the Obama administration. But beyond the public sector, her family continues to play a pivotal role in her future.
After seeing generations of her own family fight breast cancer, Campoverdi learned she too was a carrier of the breast cancer gene mutation. Now, she's taking control of her own health by having preventative surgery and helping other women of color advocate for themselves.
"I didn't discover that I tested positive for the BRCA [BReast CAncer] gene mutation until 2013," Campoverdi tells me over the phone on a sunny September day in Los Angeles. It's a topic she's only recently begun to speak about publically, although breast cancer has been a part of her life for some time now. The former White House staffer and California Congressional candidate comes from three generations of women who have all battled the disease. After realizing there might be a hereditary connection and seeing a news report about genetic testing, she and her mother both learned they were positive for the BRCA gene mutation that makes them more likely to develop breast cancer.
"It's an emotional thing to hear and you want to process it and make the decision that's best for yourself," Campoverdi explains. For her, that meant having preventative surgery in the form of a nipple delay procedure and a double mastectomy. She plans to undergo the procedures this October, which also happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In honor of this time dedicated to raising awareness of the illness, Campoverdi is opening up about her personal journey with breast cancer, her recently launched initiative the Well Woman Coalition, and how women everywhere can be an advocate for their own health.
Campoverdi and her mother are two of the 0.25% of people who carry the BRCA gene mutation. While everyone has both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes—tumor suppression genes that normally play a role in preventing breast cancer—some carry broken genes that aren't able to function correctly. This occurs when the DNA that makes up the gene becomes damaged and can cause the gene to no longer be effective at helping prevent breast cancer. That's why people with a BRCA gene mutation are more likely to develop breast cancer and to develop it at a young age. The mutation can also be passed down genetically, which is why Campoverdi urged not only herself, but her family members to get tested for it.
The health advocate first went public with her diagnosis when she ran for Congress in 2017 and since then, she has launched her own initiative called the Well Woman Coalition, with the mission to empower women of color to have agency over their own health through awareness, education, and advocacy. "I think there are moments where you realize that you may have a bunch of different experiences that have given you different skill sets, but all that isn't worth it if you don't use it for a greater good," Campoverdi explains.
For her, it's about involving her own community in her experience by using her story to work towards a larger purpose. "It's a journey that's bigger than myself," she says. With the launch of her coalition, she hopes to bring an understanding of the accessibility of genetic testing to a broader audience and to demonstrate the importance of talking about health and wellness in an open and honest way.
"By talking about these things and arming ourselves with information, we can actually help save the lives of our family members as well as our own," she tells me. According to her, advocating for your own health can have ripple effects for your family, and she and her mother are proof of that.
Campoverdi is passionate about the need for people, especially women of color, to be their own health advocate. She explains that women of color are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced cancers that may have been treated more effectively if caught earlier. Limited access to quality healthcare is a major contributor to such disparities. That's just one reason why awareness and access to information are so important and why Campoverdi's Well Woman Coalition is a necessity for those looking to take control of their own health. Ahead, learn how Campoverdi advises everyone to stay on top of their health.
If you're aware that any type of cancer runs in your family, Campoverdi thinks it's a good idea to do hereditary cancer testings for gene mutations. It's actually much more accessible and affordable now than you might think. There are even private companies that will send you a test to take at home and mail back in. "Having the information is the most important piece because when you have the information, then at the very least you can increase your surveillance," she explains.
Advocate for yourself.
"Be your own best health champion and health advocate," Campoverdi says. That means speaking up when you go in for a doctor's appointment. Even if they don't ask, tell your doctor about your family history and ask if there are additional tests or screenings that you should be doing. "I think a lot of women are told by their doctors not to worry and that [some screenings are] something for way down the line, but we know our bodies best and we know our families," she points out.
Take advantage of resources.
Enrolling in health care and taking advantage of existing resources like Planned Parenthood should also be a priority, according to Campoverdi. "I've known women that have healthcare at their disposal and have this knowledge that don't always go and get pap smears, that don't always take care of themselves because they're busy or it's hard to take off work, but we have to find a way," she says.
Reduce your risk.
Campoverdi suggests doing regular exercise, eating as much of a plant-based diet as possible, and limiting your alcohol intake in order to reduce your potential risk of developing breast cancer, even if it doesn't run in your family. It's important to note that hereditary cancer only affects a small number of women who get breast cancer each year and that the majority of women who develop the disease don't even have the BRCA gene mutation. "You want to look at all the ways that you can try to reduce your risk and not think Well, I don’t have this gene, that means that I'm in the clear," she says.
The number one way to spread awareness is to start talking, according to Campoverdi. "There's a lot of suffering in silence going on in our communities, and that's one of the reasons I'm being public with my own experience—to pull back the curtain and to really show what the realities are of this decision but also that I'm just an average person also going through this," she tells me.
Advocating for yourself is another huge aspect of spreading awareness and being able to make empowered decisions about your own health."When I look at my family’s experience, as the generations have passed, folks have felt more and more empowered. My great-grandmother and grandmother felt very powerless against this disease and they saw their diagnosis as a death sentence. But my mother and my aunt, they were able to fight breast cancer and win," Campoverdi explains. Now, she's hoping to lower her own risk of developing breast cancer from 85% to under 3% with one surgery.
"There's only so much that one can do when it comes to health, but knowing that we're doing everything we can, that we're taking all the sacrifices and the struggles of our families, and taking it one step further, that, I think, makes it all worthwhile."
Up next: Learn more about detecting breast cancer early.