This Latina Breast Cancer Survivor’s Own Journey Inspired Her Work Helping Others
Eileen Fuentes is a bilingual Dominican American, fluent in both English and Spanish. But after receiving a shocking breast cancer diagnosis at 34 years old, she quickly realized there were a few other languages she wished she’d mastered: medical jargon and cancer talk.
“There was no family history, and for sure I thought breast cancer was an older person’s disease,” Fuentes tells POPSUGAR. She was first diagnosed on Sept. 19, 2008, with stage II triple negative breast cancer, which she says has the highest mortality rate and requires aggressive treatment. “Because of social media, there are now ways to connect with members of the adolescent/young adult cancer community, but back then it felt very much like I was alone,” she adds.
Fuentes was a hospital administrator overseeing human resources and academic affairs in the division of cardiology at the time of her diagnosis. She describes that as a privilege because she already knew how to navigate hospitals and healthcare providers.
“What I did not know how to navigate at the time was my cancer care, which is so complicated and involves many procedures, treatments, and medical personnel,” she describes. The information she was receiving from her healthcare team was also difficult to process. “All the treatment and clinical trial documents had the side effect of death, so I imagined I would die and not see my daughters grow up.”
Fifteen years later, Fuentes is teaching others the language of navigating cancer with support and guidance every step of the way. “Seeing how my people were treated and the little the medical establishment did to provide guidance and support, lit a fire in me that could not be put out,” she tells POPSUGAR Juntos. Now, the mother of three is a self-healthcare activist, who has made it her life purpose to create a community of support so no one ever feels lost or alone again. By offering wellness coaching, integrative cancer care, public speaking, and workshops, Fuentes is there for patients through every step of their cancer journey.
By going through the experience herself, Fuentes understood on a deeply personal level what kind of support was needed, especially for women of color and members of the BIPOC community, to overcome breast cancer.
“The entire process was incredibly traumatic,” she recalls. “I attribute overcoming that challenge with many lifestyle modifications and embracing ancestral healing modalities.”
Fuentes returned to the source of Indigenous healing practices native to the Dominican Republic, as well as other modalities, that offered her the spiritual support and strength she needed.
“My spiritual practice was solid,” she says. “We (Black/Indigenous/people of color/immigrants/children of immigrants) have the tools that dominant populations tend to repackage and sell back to us. Knowing this made me extremely intentional about reintroducing my sisters and elders to where we come from and how to return to those practices.”
Fuentes had an altar in her home where she prayed and meditated daily. She complemented her Indigenous spiritual practices with other healing modalities like qigong classes, which she took with her husband. She also had reiki done regularly, oncology massages, and acupuncture, and she spent a lot of undistracted quality time with the people she loved most in the world.
While Fuentes was keeping her spirit healthy, she also strengthened her physical body by eating homemade Dominican plant-heavy meals, learned how to garden and grow her own food, and took daily walks with her grandfather.
“Because I was undergoing chemo during the cold winter months, I ate lots of brothy soups loaded with root vegetables and bowls of beans enhanced with greens, pumpkin, and tomatoes,” Fuentes describes, adding that at night she’d make fresh-pressed juices and herbal teas. “I struggled with nonstop nausea, vomiting, and nosebleeds, and liquids were easier to keep down.”
Her focus on self-care was key in navigating a time in her life filled with trials and tribulations. In addition to breast cancer, which caused her to have a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, and breast reconstruction, there were several other factors challenging her life at the time.
“As a result of treatment, I developed a blood clot in my heart that became more dangerous than the cancer,” she recalls, adding how personal challenges came up along the way. “I lost my home due to a natural disaster, and my father, brother, and dog all died very unexpectedly that same year.”
Fuentes described this time in her life as “unbearable.” Her spiritual practices, prioritizing a healthy diet, and spending time with loved ones are what she says contributed to her survival. “Cancer is a very complicated disease, and some of us don’t survive, and in most cases, it is not their fault,” she says.
Today, Fuentes arms herself with the knowledge of personal experience and academic studies to be a truly well-rounded advocate for the people she supports. As a certified patient navigator, holistic health coach, and African heritage plant-based cooking instructor, as well as an integrative cancer care educator and patient navigation training faculty member, she hopes to supplement her clients with the tools and strategies they need to feel empowered in their breast cancer journey.
“When meeting someone for the first time, I say the affirmation, ‘Let me be the student today,'” Fuentes says. “I actively listen so that I can meet someone where they’re at. They are the expert of their own body.”
Fuentes steers clear of a one-size-fits-all approach to cancer care because she knows each situation is unique. She reviews their treatment plan, discusses their health history, and engages in dialogue about what they understand and don’t so she can explain it in clear terms, both in English and Spanish. She also likes to remind her patients of their autonomy in what can feel like a pretty powerless situation.
“Doctors are partners in decision-making, not dictators,” Fuentes explains to patients. “Those that have the ability to seek a second opinion, should.”
Fuentes recommends that patients lean on their support system – close family and friends – and reliable resources, especially when faced with answering difficult questions like, “Should I remove my breasts?” or “Should I not have chemo even though my doctor recommends it?”
Additionally, she checks in with them regularly throughout their treatment and acts as a cheerleader in celebrating every completed phase of care. Due to her background as a human resources professional, Fuentes is able to assist with providing guidance with completing paperwork, managing disability, transitioning back to work after illness, and providing resources, including free or low-cost community services.
“I also provide support with managing their lives outside of the medical setting,” she details. “Primarily around incorporating health-supportive food, therapeutic movement using available resources, spirituality (not religion) and offer emotional support.”
Fuentes saw a need and filled it. Now, she supports others on their breast cancer journey, assuring them that they have someone who not only understands from personal experience but also speaks the same language and can assist in filtering through the medical jargon that can add stress to an already daunting situation.
“Pray with your feet and move with intention,” she says. “In other words, don’t let this situation take your power.”