Soraya, the Colombian singer and songwriter whose ballads and pop tunes have won over an international audience, took a break from recording and touring in 2000 when, at age 31, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo surgery and aggressive chemotherapy as part of her treatment. Having already lost a mother and an aunt to the disease, the bilingual star joined a public-awareness campaign to help other Latina women threatened by breast cancer. She returned to the music business in early 2003 with a new collection of work titled simply Soraya. "In one of my songs I write: 'Por cada silencio una canción' ('For Every Silence, There Is a Song')," Soraya said in an interview that appeared on her official website, which "really sums up my physical and musical rebirth. I can't change that I got cancer, but I have chosen to not let it break my spirit."
Soraya was born in New Jersey, where her parents had settled after leaving Colombia. She wrote her first song at the age of five, and from an early age she was determined to enter the entertainment industry. "My intentions were really clear from the start," she said in a 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service article by Lydia Martin. "It was never to be a star. I just wanted to do my art and maybe be lucky enough to make a living at it." After finding success in her early twenties as a songwriter for other performers, Soraya landed a recording contract with Polygram Latino/Island Records, and in 1996 she released her debut album, En Esta Noche/On Nights Like This. Two tracks from the album, "Amor En Tus Ojos" and "De Repente," reached No. 1 on Billboard 's Latin Pop Airplay chart, and the LP itself hit number 31 on the Top Latin Albums list.
"De Repente" was also released in an English-language version, "Suddenly," and it helped propel the singer to wider fame. Sales for the record were strong in both Germany and Australia, and she was invited to tour with Sting, Alanis Morissette, Michael Bolton, and Natalie Merchant. The success of her debut also smoothed the way for a collaboration with one of her longtime idols, 1970s-era singer and songwriter Carole King. Soraya and King co-wrote the title track for Soraya's Wall of Smiles, released in 1998.
In the spring of 2000, just as she was set to tour for her third record, Cuerpo y Alma/I'm Yours, Soraya traveled to Colombia to visit her aunt, who was fatally ill with breast cancer. Soraya's mother and grandmother had died of the disease, too, and 1992's En Esta Noche contains a song she wrote about her mother's death. On the visit to Colombia, Soraya was stunned to find a lump in her breast, and doctors soon diagnosed her as suffering from Stage III, a late-stage version of breast cancer.
After learning the news, Soraya headed to Puerto Rico to participate in an already-scheduled promotional week for her new record, but then returned to Florida to begin treatment. "It's not that my priorities changed," she told Martin. "None of it mattered. The commitments didn't matter. The record contract didn't matter. I was dealing with the diagnosis." Soraya underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and the personal crisis made her aware that there seemed to be barriers to early cancer detection and prevention measures among Latina women. As she told Valeria Godines in another Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service article, "After I got over my first mountain, I decided that maybe I needed to do something with this." When the news broke, her website was flooded with 6,000 fan e-mails in one week alone, most from Latina women, many of whom were also suffering from the disease. "There were some women who didn't want to leave the house because their hair fell out or they worried that their husband would leave them," the singer described to Godines.
Studies showed that Latina women were far more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer than their non-Latina counterparts, and so Soraya joined the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation as its Spanish-language spokesperson. At the time, she was still undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. "It was a hard decision to do an interview when I lost my hair and had to wear a bandanna," she told Martin. "But once I did it, it wasn't so bad." Music also helped immensely, as she told Latina 's Abbie Kozolchyk. "I wrote and listened to music that allowed me to let go of a lot of emotions—feelings I wouldn't have otherwise expressed, even with friends." It was crucial to the recovery process, she asserted. "You bottle up so many things when you get a devastating diagnosis," she continued. "There's so much stress, and stress hinders healing."
Soraya went into remission in late 2001. She signed with a new label, EMI Latin, the following year, and began putting together tracks for her next album. Soraya, released in early 2003, featured eleven Spanish-language songs and one in English. Its first single, "Casi," starts off with a country-western twang but then segues into an energetic pop classic. "This is my survivor song," Soraya said in her website interview about the album. "It speaks to that instant when you almost give up and let go, but at the end your feet stayed grounded and you regain your stability."
For the Record . . .
Born c. 1969 in New Jersey.
Signed with Polygram Latino/Island Records and released first LP, En Esta Noche/On Nights Like This, 1996; released Wall of Smiles, 1998; released Cuerpo y Alma/I'm Yours, 2000; signed with EMI Latin, 2002; released Soraya, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— EMI Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104. Website— Soraya Official Website: http://www.soraya.com.
Soraya lives in the South Miami area, and still serves as an advocate for early detection efforts in the breast cancer battle, as a way of giving back to the community, and as a way to reach out as well. "It's a responsibility, and there are many artists who forget that," Soraya said of her stardom in an interview with Houston Chronicle writer Ramiro Burr. "You receive many advantages from being on the public stage, and at the same time it's a responsibility that grows, and you have to give back. You can sing or write songs, but without the public's support you don't go anywhere. So you have to give something back."
En Esta Noche/On Nights Like This, Polygram Latino/Island, 1996.
Wall of Smiles, Polygram Latino/Island, 1998.
Cuerpo y Alma/I'm Yours, Polygram Latino/Island, 2000.
Soraya, EMI Latin, 2003.
Billboard, July 12, 2003.
Houston Chronicle, June 3, 2001, p. 7.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 26, 2001; September 20, 2002.
Latina, July 2003, p. 68.
Soraya Official Website, http://www.soraya.com (November 18, 2003).
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