Living BOLD

Latina breast cancer survivors savor a decade of living in technicolor

She calls herself a cactus, with thorns to protect her and the resilience to withstand anything. A Texas prickly pear cactus can survive snow, drought and injury. When a cactus gets cut, it scars and keeps growing. And it produces life in the delicate yellow flowers that sprout along its hard ridges.

After three bouts of cancer, Julie La Fuente Louviere is cut and scarred, but she’s still going.

“It rains, it thunders, it’s cold and it’s hot. The nopal is still standing,” she said. “And it’s standing with pride, with its needles out. Nothing is going to make it weak.”

Louviere was 29 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a mastectomy, she began chemotherapy. Five years later, she heard the word every cancer survivor dreams of hearing: remission. Then came more good news. Despite the damage to her ovaries caused by the chemotherapy, she was pregnant with her second child.

But the excitement was short lived.

Just into her second trimester, the cancer came back, this time in her liver and bones.

“It didn’t look good,” she said. She was given two months to live. Doctors advised her to terminate her pregnancy and begin intensive chemotherapy. She refused.

“I said, ‘God won’t give me anything I can’t handle.’” She became the first woman documented in medical books to undergo chemotherapy while in advanced pregnancy. She was told her baby would have a slew of health problems. But on Valentine’s Day 1998, her daughter, Alis, was born—healthy despite the odds.

And eventually, Louviere’s cancer disappeared.

“She’s my miracle baby,” she said. “In a way, I believe it was my daughter who saved my life.”

Louviere’s story of survival is one of 26 featured in Nuestras Historias: Mujeres Hispanas Sobreviviendo el Cáncer del Seno (Our Stories: Hispanic Women Surviving Breast Cancer), a collection of essays by Latina breast cancer patients and survivors.

The 114-page book, written in both English and Spanish, was produced in 2004 by Redes En Acción, a national Latino cancer research network funded by the National Cancer Institute and based at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the Health Science Center. Louviere said she never hesitated when asked to share her story.

“Not only was my story going to give hope to some lost soul that was out there, but it was going to be given in two different languages,” she said. “And to me, if God had me here for a reason, maybe that was the reason. If I could help my own race and my own women to understand this disease and understand there is hope after breast cancer and know that you can be a mommy and a wife, and you can be a sister, and you can be a loving aunt fighting this disease and still making cookies for the neighborhood children, it would all be worth it.”

Like a picture taken a decade ago, the stories are frozen in time. But in the 10 years since the book was published, much has changed. Of the 26 original authors, 10 have died. And once more, Louviere is battling yet another bout with the disease—for the third time.

The numbers speak loudly as to why the book was written. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among Latina women, and the number of cases is steadily increasing. The purpose of the book was to put faces to the startling statistic, and offer hope, comfort and advice for others battling breast cancer, said Sandra Lorena San Miguel, research instructor for the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the institute.

“Latina women put themselves last,” she said. “Their needs are so primary—howto putfood on the table that day. They don’t see the long term.

“We wanted to produce something for women that they could relate to so they could go out and face their fears and say, ‘We can do this.’”

Since it was printed in 2004, the book has won several awards and has been distributed for free to breast cancer patients, survivors and their families. It also lives online, and has been used by othersupport programs to help patients as far away as Wisconsin.

Most importantly, it has been shared by the authors who participated, and passed down to their nieces, daughters and grandchildren. Now a new generation of Latinas can be armed with the knowledge that the participants themselves felt they lacked, Louviere said.

“The book made me feel like I could help people,” Louviere said. “It made me feel like we were a group of not only cancer warriors, but Latina warriors. And we needed to get heard. And we did.”

Tanya Del Valle

Tanya Del Valle

Battle scars
The cover of Nuestras Historias is a mosaic of women’s faces. There is strength, resolve and beauty. There’s no visible sign of cancer.
“For the women who read this book, I think it shows them that not all cancer patients look a certain way. You can see us looking fabulous,” said Tanya DelValle, who was also featured in the book. At the time of her diagnosis in 1997, she was 27 years old, the youngest breast cancer patient in San Antonio. “It also shows you the very real side of this. It does take some lives. But it shows that you are a survivor from the minute you’re diagnosed, not from when you’re done with chemo. It can happen at any age, yet you can still survive.”

DelValle’s survivor story began when she was in the prime of her life. She was engaged, and working as a coach and a biology teacher at a local high school. A routine visit to the doctor revealed her lump, but neither her doctor nor DelValle were concerned. At that time, there weren’t many women in their 20s who had cancer.

The lump continued to grow, and when doctors tried to drain the cyst, nothing but cells came out. Immediately, more tests and a biopsy were scheduled. Then, just before Thanksgiving, she got the devastating news: It’s malignant.

In a flash, her life changed. She joined survivor groups, and other women fighting breast cancer became her best friends. Her sense of security was shattered as she watched those friends die.

“I changed a lot,” she said. “I saw life through a different lens. I appreciated things a lot more. I have always been a pretty happy person, but I found an inner strength that I didn’t know existed.”

She focused on the women she saw hitting and passing the all-important five-year milestone that signals remission.

“I remember looking at them and going, ‘I am going to be you one day,’” she said.

When San Miguel asked her to write her story for Nuestras Historias, she had finally passed the milestone. Along with the scar from her lumpectomy, she wore another battle mark, a tattoo of the Energizer Bunny playing a drum with a pink ribbon on it to symbolize her promise to keep battling against cancer.

“I became that woman that other women look to and say, ‘I’m going to be you one day,’” she said. “I loved that chance to give them hope.”

And she’s now living her dream, she added, despite the challenges that cancer threw her way. She is married to her best friend, Rudy, and surrounds herself with family and friends.

The incidences of breast cancer are highest for non-Hispanic white women,yet it is Latinas who are less likely to survive for five years after diagnosis. Latinas are 2.3 times more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage because they delay or forego routine wellness checkups.

“Latina women typically hold back. Even when they find a lump, they don’t see a doctor,” San Miguel said. “There are resources in thecommunity, but a lot of times they don’t follow through because of fear.”

Sylvia Beilstein

Sylvia Beilstein

When Sylvia Beilstein felt the small lump in her breast, she kept it a secret from everyone, even her husband. At the time, he was unemployed and health insurance had not yet kicked in through her employer. She took a gamble and waited.

Once she saw the doctor, the rest happened quickly.

“I had to have a full mastectomy because they didn’t know how much cancer had gotten loose and traveled throughout my body,” she said. That was 31 years ago.

Soon after her diagnosis, Beilstein’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. And five years ago, her daughter, Laura, found out she, too, had the disease.

For Beilstein, who is called the Mexican Lucille Ball by her family because of her propensity for fun and laughter, the moment her daughter was diagnosed was a turning point. Out came Nuestras Historias. She used it to give Laura hope and to remind her that she wasn’t alone.

“In some way or another, we women can relate to each other,” Beilstein said. “The more women are made aware, the more they will examine themselves.”

Bea Vasquez

Bea Vasquez

Women need to be educated, and they need to feel empowered, said Bea Vasquez, who helped San Miguel find survivors to share their stories for Nuestras Historias, and who also is a 15-year breast cancer survivor featured in the book. The cancer diagnosis didn’t stop her from being active in the community or from raising one daughter and six foster children.
“The fight is a hard one, but we are going to fight and not be afraid,” Vasquez said. “And if it comes back, we are going to fight with even more power.”

A decade of milestones
Ten years after its original release, Nuestras Historias remains an important project in the lives of the participants. It gave them a chance to share their knowledge and experiences. It let them deliver hope to strangers who were going through the turmoil that a cancer diagnosis brings. And it identified them as survivors, even in the grip of illness.

“When people think of women going through chemotherapy, they think she’s gray, she’s bald, she’s fragile,” Louviere said. “They never see she’s vibrant. They never see she’s a fighter. They never see the port that means that she’s a warrior. They never see the charisma, the attitude, the willingness to fight. They don’t see that the person has her lips done and her makeup done because she’s enjoying that day, that moment, and she’s not taking it for granted.”

But that’s what the book did, Vasquez said. It captured the women in the beauty of life.

“To see all these women featured, with beautiful haircuts and makeup, one breast missing, two breasts missing, no breasts missing—and to see them feeling good about themselves, that’s what the book portrays,” Vasquez said. “It was important that we show that you can be a cancer survivor and still look beautiful and still get up in the morning and still feel good about yourself.”

There are other lessons in the book as well. Like Louviere’s nopal, the essays urge all women to keep growing by learning more about cancer, to spread hope like the flowers that blossom along the cactus’ ridges, and to boldly live life.

Though Louviere was given an expiration date years ago, she hasn’t stopped living. This year, she reached a milestone she never thought she’d see.

“Turning 50 years oldwas the biggest thing ever. I wanted to turn 50 so bad,” she said.

And then the second-biggest thing happened. She became a grandmother, or, as she calls herself, “Glama.”

“It was the frosting on the cake,” she said. “Before cancer, I was very materialistic. I never had time to smell the flowers. The new me enjoys everymoment that there is. Traffic, the heat. I just enjoy that God has given me the energy for today.”

For 22 years, Louviere has been a cancer patient. Like the nopal, she’s scarred, but she wears the wounds of cancer proudly.

“I have learned the power of prayer,” she said. “I have learned that life is way too short. I have learned that when God throws you lemons, you make a little lemonade, and I’ve learned that it’s OK to feel sad some days.

“I have learned that it’s OK to wear a bikini and have all these scars on your body. You call those your warrior scars. And I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you finish. And you finish with your head up, your shoulders back and with a smile.”

But, she quickly adds, she’s not finished yet.

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