On September 19, 2008 my life was turned upside down. On that fateful day, my wife and mother of our 3 young girls, Eileen Z. Fuentes, was diagnosed with breast cancer. To make matters worse, it was an aggressive form of breast cancer that was ominously named triple-negative, which meant it did not respond to any known hormone treatment. We had entered the dark and despair-ridden world that Junot Diaz aptly named cancer planet.
For the first few days we were in a profound daze. The journey ahead of us was fraught with danger; surgery, chemotherapy, experimental treatment and possibly radiation. The day before the first surgery to remove the tumor, Eileen read an article that talked about the aggressiveness of triple negative cancer, her spirits and morale plummeted. Fortunately, that night we watched the movie The Secret that armed us with a state of mind and a philosophy that has served us well throughout the ordeal.
After watching the eye-opening movie we knew that we would make it. We knew that staying positive in the face of this life threatening disease was crucial. We went into that surgery with that intention and were rewarded when the first words from the surgeon after the operation were “best possible outcome, the margins are clean; the cancer doesn’t seem to have spread”.
We still had a long road to haul. Due to her young age, the chemo regimen was an especially arduous one. After the initial surgery, my wife elected to have a radical mastectomy to avoid radiation and for peace of mind. While my wife was essentially wasting away from the grueling chemo sessions, her estranged father died. To make matters worse, a blood clot was found in her heart that required daily injections to her abdomen. Within 2 months of her father passing, her young brother also lost his life. These were very dark days. Cancer almost destroyed us.
With that said, my wife’s cancer diagnosis was a blessing. Cancer forced us to confront death in a way that was extremely harsh but it also spurred the both of us to action. Personally, while I fancied myself a writer that was working on an ode to my beloved Dominican Republic, I really was not tapping into my gifts. Cancer changed that. Since then I realized that if I wanted something I had to work, kick, scratch and bite to make it happen. Procrastination is no longer an option. As far as my wife, cancer turned her into a powerhouse. Even though she was an educated and well-spoken woman, she still had a tough time navigating the cancer care process. She has now made it her life’s mission to help women of all stripes, but especially those in under-served communities, deal with the life-altering challenge that is cancer and its subsequent treatment.
10 years later, I am proud to say that Eileen is a healthy, vibrant champion of those facing, and who have faced, the specter of cancer. Her wellness program at Columbia University Medical Center has empowered cancer survivors to take their health into their own hands. She has taken numerous courses to better educate herself and in turn has passed that knowledge on to her ever-expanding network. She continues to be the voice of those who have not yet found their voice. She is a teacher, a healer, a blogger and an activist among many other things.
By the way, she is only getting started.