Survivor Stories: Eileen Z. Fuentes
How did you first find out you had cancer?
I was sleeping and had an itch on my breast and when I went to scratch, felt a lump. Even though I had stopped nursing just a couple of months prior, intuitively I felt that something was terribly wrong. Since I work in a hospital, I was able to schedule a mammogram fairly quickly from the period where I casually ran into it.
How did you react when you heard the news?
My knees gave out on me and I started to shake and cry uncontrollably. I was young (34) and had no family history. In addition, my three daughters were so young (ages 2, 4, and 9) and I thought I wasn’t going to be around to see them grow up. To make matters worse, I was diagnosed with triple negative disease, which is the most aggressive and has the poorest prognosis.
What course of treatment were you prescribed?
I had a lumpectomy and as a result of continuous screening, I elected to go back and have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I also underwent chemotherapy and took part in the Avastin clinical trial. This combination of drugs caused a blood clot in my heart, which became even more dangerous than the cancer.
What most surprised you about your treatment?
The side effects were terrible. I lost nearly 40 pounds, had constant nose bleeds due to the blood thinners and coughed uncontrollably. But the most surprising part of it was that I was more grateful at that point than ever for my life. It’s weird to feel such a heightened level of gratitude under those horrific circumstances.
What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
This too shall pass. If you are open about your disease, you will meet more angels than you ever imagined. Cancer sucks, no question, but the life that waits after it is pretty amazing. There is a common bond amongst those of us “that have been there” that never changes, no matter what.
How long have you been cancer free?
It was four years this September. While there is no cure for cancer, those with triple negative disease are most at risk in the first three years. It feels good to say that.
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
Your time and who you give it to is so incredibly important. Through this experience, I discovered my passion for leading others to good health; I’ve become a better mother and wife. I met Oprah (a lifelong dream) and all because I spoke my truth, and made those things that are important to me a priority. After more than 15 years of working full-time while taking care of my family, I went part-time and pursued work that fulfills me and serves others simultaneously.
If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there, what would it be?
Add YOU to the to-do list. The rat race serves no one and for those women who have female children, you are sending a strong message—loud and clear—about how they should conduct themselves. Teach them life skills like cooking and self-care early in life so that the cycle doesn’t repeat itself. I’m sometimes in awe at the collective transformation in my own home.
Eileen Z. Fuentes has been in healthcare administration for over 15 years. In 2008, at just 34 years old, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer and underwent aggressive treatment. In 2010, Eileen founded and led the first ever Women’s Wellness Series for the Clinical Breast Cancer Program at Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights. She also started her own company, The SPEACH (The Self Promotion Empowerment Advocacy and Care Haven), which is committed to supporting women dealing with health challenges as well as those looking to prevent it. More information can be viewed on her blog: www.thespeach.com
More from GEM