Columbia University Medical Center Profiles Our Very Own Eileen Z. Fuentes

Like many survivors of cancer, Eileen Fuentes, an HR administrator in the Department of Medicine’s cardiology division, was physically and emotionally drained after multiple surgeries and months of chemotherapy. She needed guidance to rebuild her life, and was referred to a support group for breast cancer survivors.

“I went down to the basement, opened the door to a dark room and all the women were crying,” says Fuentes, who was 34 at the time of her diagnosis . “That just wasn’t for me.”

Instead, Fuentes forged her own path, seeking support from a multitude of wellness experts including nutritionists, massage therapists and physical trainers. “Then when my surgeon asked me what the medical team could have done better, I said there’s a huge desire among patients to take part in their own recovery. It was like he opened Pandora’s box, and all these ideas started flowing out.”

That’s when Fuentes got the idea to create her own wellness series for women battling cancer. “I wanted to create a positive program where women can laugh and feel empowered about their own health.”

Fuentes first spent two years learning about complementary therapies, nutrition, and received a scholarship from Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation to learn how to help patients navigate their way through a fragmented health care system. She then recruited a stable of volunteers to lead each session in the wellness series: shiatsu students from Pacific College gave massages, career coaches gave advice about how to return to work, and an Alvin Ailey dancer taught salsa. The Department of Surgery provides logistical support.

“Yes, we cry sometimes, but mostly we’re having fun,” Fuentes says. “Sometimes the word cancer doesn’t even come up.”

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  • Team Afro
    March 21, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I applaud you for your courage and determination and your willingness to help others. You more than anyone knows how important it is to do for self, but then to give to others is a true blessing.

  • Ilia Castro
    March 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Eileen is an amazing and inspiring woman. I am not surprised that she is running such a wonderful support group.