WASHINGTON — Fifteen women gathered at the White House on Tuesday, selected to share their experiences with breast cancer, either as survivors or patients, medical caregivers or researchers, volunteers or funding activists.
Delia Oliveri of Las Vegas fit several of those categories as she told her story to an audience invited to raise awareness of the disease and efforts to combat it.
Oliveri, 74, was recognized by the Obama administration through a Champions of Change program that convenes weekly discussions on issues facing individuals and families.
"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983," Oliveri said onstage in a White House auditorium, seated beside other participants.
"It was very difficult to diagnose because when they found out I had it, on the film the spot was no bigger than the head of a straight pin."
It was discovered by comparing the image with a baseline mammogram that was done two years earlier.
"As a divorced, single woman living alone, I was extremely devastated," Oliveri said.
She had a mastectomy because that was the treatment of choice. Lumpectomies were new, and the survival rate for patients was only five years, she said.
Oliveri, who was living in California at the time, went $40,000 into debt. She was a legal secretary and had just changed jobs, so she had little insurance and was out of work for three months.
During her recovery, a volunteer with the American Cancer Society began coming to her house and "just brought joy to my life."
Oliveri vowed she would volunteer herself, and so she did. She organized a breast cancer support group in Valencia, Calif., that, 20 years later, still meets the second Tuesday of every month.
Oliveri moved to Las Vegas to get married in 1999, a year after suffering another medical setback. She was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and has taken part in clinical trials to fight the disease, for which she said there is no cure.
In Las Vegas, Oliveri continued to work on behalf of breast cancer patients. She is Nevada’s lead ambassador with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, the advocacy arm of the nonprofit support group.
When the White House was seeking participants for the Champions of Change program, Oliveri was nominated by the cancer action group.
Hours before the White House event, she was on Capitol Hill lobbying staffs for Nevada lawmakers to preserve federal funding for cancer research and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I come back (to Washington) every year in September," Oliveri said. "I always go back empowered to work on these issues. That is what I volunteered for."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.