Stroke and cancer survivor Belinda De La Rosa with, from left, her husband Joe and sons Michael and Jonathan. (Photo courtesy of Belinda De La Rosa)

Stroke and cancer survivor Belinda De La Rosa with, from left, her husband Joe and sons Michael and Jonathan. (Photo courtesy of Belinda De La Rosa)

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Belinda De La Rosa was driving to a doctor’s appointment for what she thought was tennis elbow. A nagging pain in her left arm had been bothering her for days.

She happened to be passing a hospital on that day in 1997 when the pain turned to numbness that spread from her left arm to her neck and face, a classic symptom of stroke. She went directly to the emergency room.

Testing showed De La Rosa, then 41, was having a clot-caused ischemic stroke. Doctors discovered she had an undiagnosed autoimmune condition called antiphospholipid syndrome, which can cause the body to form blood clots.

To help prevent another stroke, she started taking a blood thinner and medication for previously undiagnosed high blood pressure. She struggled for months with weakness on her left side, causing her leg to drag as she walked, and her face drooped slightly.

Her sons were 5 and 12 at the time, and De La Rosa poured herself into taking care of them to take her mind off the trauma of the experience.

“I had so much anxiety,” she said. “I would wake up screaming, ‘I don’t want to die.’”

Stroke is the nation’s No. 5 cause of death and a leading cause of disability. Although the rate of stroke deaths among U.S. adults fell 38 percent between 2000 and 2015, that pace slowed or reversed in most states from 2013 to 2015, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

African-Americans are most likely to die from stroke, but among Hispanics, stroke death rates rose 5.8 percent each year from 2013 to 2015, the report said.

Mitchell S.V. Elkind, M.D., a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University, said the increasing death rates signal the importance of raising awareness about stroke risks, but also the need to look at other factors that may play a role, such as access to care or healthy foods.

“If people can’t get medication or are struggling economically and can’t get exercise or afford healthy food, that will increase their risks,” said Elkind, who is chair of the American Stroke Association. “It’s a multi-dimensional problem and all these things interweave with socioeconomics.”

Elkind said better outreach is needed in the Hispanic community that accounts for cultural sensitivities and regional differences. In some urban areas, for example, quality fruits and vegetables are hard to find, while sugary drinks and high-sodium and fried foods are common. Family, community and religious groups can play important roles in health, particularly for recent immigrants, he said.

“The divide between the medical community and immigrant community can be difficult to bridge,” Elkind said. “We have to find individuals within the community that can be the spokespeople for healthy behaviors.”

De La Rosa is now 61 and lives in Victoria, Texas. After being treated for stage 3 colon cancer in 2006, she overhauled her diet. She limits red meat, makes healthy substitutions to traditional Mexican dishes, and no longer drinks sugar-sweetened beverages, favoring water and tea instead.

Last April, De La Rosa had another stroke — 19 years after the first. Her doctor changed up her medications and she fine-tuned her diet even further to include more greens and less sodium.

She also started exercising more, using a fitness tracker to log at least 10,000 steps each day.

“You don’t have to kill yourself with cardio, but do something to stay active,” said De La Rosa, who was nominated by her son Michael as an ASA Stroke Hero.

“[Faith] is what keeps me going,” she said. “Always look up and stay positive. With God’s grace, you’ll be fine. Maybe not physically, but mentally.”

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