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Spirited singer-songwriter Soraya lost her breasts to cancer. Today, she works to inspire hope.

By Peggy J. Noonan

Her post-cancer comeback CD, "Soraya," was nominated for the 2004 Latin Grammy in the Best Singer-Songwriter Album category.

Four years ago, nearing great success on the Latin music charts, singer-songwriter Soraya, only 31, got the worst news of her life: She had Stage 3 breast cancer.

That June, she was gearing up for a national tour to promote her just-completed third CD, the folk-based, pop-savvy "Cuerpo y Alma/I'm Yours," when she discovered a lump during a routine breast self-exam. The discovery was even more chilling because the Colombian-American beauty from New Jersey already had lost her mother, aunt and grandmother to breast cancer.

"I've always been very independent, and I've always been very strong," says the singer who's been called the Latina Sarah McLachlan, "but at that moment, when I was diagnosed, I did doubt if I had what it takes to get through it."

Soraya (pronounced so-RYE-ah) always had eaten right, tried to run 3 miles a day, practiced meditation,
received regular check-ups and generally took good care of herself. She thinks that being in such great shape
helped her cope with the arduous treatment she faced. Courses of chemotherapy. Radiation. Bilateral mastectomy. Reconstruction.

Friends and family formed her support team. They joke about it now, but during the crisis everyone had an assignment. One person made sure she ate well. Another made sure she got to the doctors' on time. Another took notes. "It's really important to either record things or put things down on paper, because by the time you get home, it's very hard to remember," Soraya says. "You're in such shock."

Cancer would take her breasts, her hair, her confidence and even -- temporarily -- her career. Music became her refuge from pain, nausea, fatigue and despair and "part of my therapy. It was my private space where I could disappear to," Soraya says. Her guitar gave her strength as well as an outlet where she could "pour it all out."

One morning Soraya woke up feeling good -- really good. "I realized at that moment that I had turned the corner." Yes, cancer had turned her life upside down and shelved her career, but it hadn't beaten her. Her life might not be the same, but it was still her life, and she was determined to make the most of it, starting with writing No One Else/Por Ser Quien Soy, a song of hope and triumph. The first time she performed it was at a Race for the Cure event in front of pink-shirted breast cancer survivors. Today, the song has been shared with a million fans via CD giveaways and free downloads from www.livingwithit.org, Web site of one of the cancer programs she supports. Her own site, soraya.com, links to resources in English and Spanish.

Latina outreach programs are especially important to her because she sees reflections of her mother, aunt and grandmother in many of the women she meets. "My family comes from Colombia, and my mom did not grow up with Race for the Cure events ... with the month of October being [National] Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She did not grow up knowing to start doing a breast self-exam monthly," Soraya says, "knowing that she needs a yearly mammogram at a certain age. All of the work that I do is to try to help break that cycle."

Her advice: Learn about breast cancer, and perform self-exams. If you do find a lump, don't be afraid. And, most important, don't give up hope.

"One day we'll say breast cancer is a chronic disease, a thing that you don't die from but you can live with."