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Lorena Villalobos (copy)

Lorena Villalobos, owner of Lorena's Beauty Salon, 2917 Fish Hatchery Road, Fitchburg. Villalobos is one of five Latino hair stylists trained through a new initiative to bring breast cancer awareness to her clients. 

People naturally open up to their hairdressers, said Andrea Nino De Guzman Ramirez, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Sometimes (they) might be your psychiatrist for those brief 30 minutes,” she said.

Ramirez and fellow classmate Eva Shelton created an initiative that takes advantage of that fact with a public health twist. What if your hairdresser asked you about more than your dating life or your kids?

“Let’s say you were getting your nails done or hair done and the person doing that asked you, ‘Do you happen to know how often you’re supposed to get your mammograms?’” Ramirez said.

A new initiative, organized by UW students and the Latino Health Council, is training five Latino hairstylists as community health promoters, teaching them to bring up breast cancer awareness and if necessary, direct their clients to resources in the community.

“Our health promoters are hopefully going to be able to reach hundreds and hundreds of people in the next year,” Ramirez said.

The initiative kicks off with a gala on Saturday at Bethel Church, located at 312 Wisconsin Ave., from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Stylists will get a chance to try out their health promoting skills before the gala, doing hair for attendees and practicing talking about breast cancer.

Ramirez is hoping that the stylists will knock down many of the barriers Latinos face when accessing health care.

“Latinos don’t have more likelihood of getting cancer, but they have more likelihood of dying of breast cancer, because they’re not reaching for resources sometimes,” she said. 

Latinos may not have health insurance or assume they can’t afford services, or may fear they will be asked for a Social Security number they don’t have, as these are “somewhat politically scary times for many Latinos,” Ramirez said. Others may not speak English well and assume they won’t be understood.

Ramirez can relate. Her own family immigrated to the United State when she was 12, she said, and there were no health providers that spoke Spanish.

“My mom asked me to translate for her. It seems completely incredible that there were no interpreters,” Ramirez said. “You were relying on your 12-year-old to translate for you.”

The program aims to reassure Latinos that health care is accessible for them.

“We want them to be that person that kind of reassures you that if you don’t have money, you don’t have papers, if you don't speak the language, you can still access health care,” Ramirez said.

The stylists are all Latino, Spanish-speakers and have well-established roots within the Madison community.

“It’s important not to be outsiders bringing information in, but using people who already have ties,” Ramirez said.

Lorena Villalobos, owner of Lorena’s Hair Salon in Fitchburg, is one of the stylists, and knows her clients trust her.

“My clients that I know for many years, they feel so comfortable talking to me about anything in their lives,” she said.

She sees the need and is excited to help. Villalobos’ mother had uterine cancer that was successfully treated, and she’s glad that her mother knew about the available resources.

“People don’t go often to doctors because they think it’s too expensive and they don't have a Social Security card,” Villalobos said. “I can help a lot by letting them know the programs. I mean, tell them a little bit about how they can save their lives.”

Ramirez and Shelton worked on the plan with the help of the Latino Health Council, a grant from the Morgridge Center for Public Service, and a team of 10 undergraduate students. The project was proposed by Dr. Patricia Téllez-Girón, co-chair of the Latino Health Council and associate professor of family medicine at UW.

Community health promoters are not a new concept, Téllez-Girón said, and there’s a barbershop in Madison with a Men’s Health and Education Center aimed at African-American men. But she had never seen hairstylists used as breast cancer awareness promoters.

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“When you go to get your hair done, they talk to you about everything, and they are basically counselors,” she said. “So they are naturally leaders, they are naturally good at talking to people.”

It’s a cost-effective method, Téllez-Girón said: only five hairstylists are trained, but each have around 100 clients a year.

Ramirez and Shelton looked in medical journals to see if a similar project had been attempted, but the closest thing they found was a project training tattoo artists to detect skin abnormalities. Ramirez and Shelton plan to write about the project so that it can be replicated. They’re potentially working with a local breast cancer screening service to count how many people are referred there from the hairdressers.

On Saturday, hairdressers will test their skills before the gala. The gala itself will provide preventive information and explain the early signs of breast cancer. Survivors will also talk about their experiences and the process they went through after diagnoses, Ramirez said.

A panel of Madison organizations will walk the audience through available resources for breast cancer prevention and support, and women will be able to sign up for those services on the spot.

Those resources include places like Planned Parenthood, the Catholic Multicultural Center and Gilda’s Club, a group that helps those diagnosed with breast cancer navigate the health care system, and has translators available for those who don’t speak English, Ramirez said.

More than 130 people are expected at the free event, Ramirez said, and transportation will be provided. The event includes dinner, entertainment and musical groups. Families are invited.

“It’s not only women that are affected by breast cancer, so we are making it as accessible as possible for the entire family,” Ramirez said.

Villalobos is looking forward to Saturday.

“I’m excited and I’m happy to be able to do this,” Villalobos said. “We’re doing a good thing for people."

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