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  • Stories & Articles by Sonia

Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Surviving Cancer

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

From Feminista, Volume 2, Number 3/4, 1998.

This article was first published in Surviving!, a Cancer Patient Newsletter, 6.6 (Nov./Dec. 1991). It was also published on the Web site, Always New You, September 13, 2011.

After I had a routine mammogram on October 24, 1990, I was asked by the laboratory technician to return for some additional pictures to be taken. I was not unduly worried as I was told this is frequently required. Before the technician took the extra pictures, she said that afterwards, the radiologist would come in to discuss the results with me. After the pictures were taken, however, the technician said the radiologist wanted me to come to his office. That's when my heart first sank. I could tell something was wrong.

The radiologist said there was a spot he was concerned about; he suggested I ask my internist to recommend a surgeon to perform a biopsy. While I was shook, I didn't feel too badly because he then went into quite a spiel about how four or five of these biopsies turn out to be nothing.

I arranged for the biopsy, but before it, the surgeon asked me to see my internist for some blood tests. After the blood tests, the internist sat me down and spent twenty minutes telling me that from the looks of my x-rays, the radiologist and the surgeon believed it was likely I had breast cancer. I was stunned. I was totally unprepared for that news since I had just come in for routine blood tests. I walked out of the the office in a daze.

When I reached the sidewalk, I felt as if someone had thrown a pail of cold water into my face. I did not know what to do. That evening, I was due to go to my friend Lillian's house for her annual get-together to watch the election results on TV. I didn't know whether I was up to going; I didn't know whether I should go. I wondered about the wisdom of telling my friends who would be there this news. I didn't want to disrupt the get-together. I didn't know whether I could handle it emotionally. But, on the other hand, I didn't particularly want to be alone. I decided to go but not say anything until the end of the evening.

At the end of the evening, I mentioned it to Lillian, who was a physician, and to a couple of other close friends there. Lillian said, "Remember, Sonia, the most important thing is to have a positive attitude." That made me feel terrible, although Lillian, of course, meant well. Because when I learned the news, my feelings were anything but positive. I felt, "O.K., if this thing wants to get me, let it. I'm not married. Zia, my nineteen-year-old daughter, could care less. I might as well die."

The next day, I told Lillian that her remark made me feel terrible because I wasn't feeling positive at all. She said that was O.K., that I could feel however I felt.

Then, amazing things started to happen. My friends and family began to show me unbelievable caring and support. My brother Hermann called me daily for months as did my friend Ruth from Philadelphia. My cousin Berta and a number of friends called frequently. Various friends went with me to see the surgeon (when I was fearful of not being emotionally able to handle the bad news I expected -- and got -- after the biopsy), and took me to and from the hospital for my lumpectomy and subsequent mastectomy and simultaneous implant. Then, when the chemotherapy treatments started, various friends offered to stay overnight with me after each treatment -- and did. Others offered me their homes to stay overnight.

At the beginning, my friend Sarah urged me to reach out to organizations fighting cancer, and I did so. Most offered to send me information kits, but in calling the American Cancer Society (ACS), I came across an incredibly caring social worker on staff named Wilma Scheuren. Her voice alone contained such caring and compassion that it did me good just to hear her. Thereafter, she was a constant source of understanding, comfort, and advice. Whenever I hit a snag in my emotions, Wilma was there for me.

In addition, she sent a Reach for Recovery volunteer to visit me in the hospital after my mastectomy. Wilma also invited me to attend the ACS breast cancer support group meetings, which I did. The Reach for Recovery volunteer had had a mastectomy and a simultaneous breast reconstruction as I had. She made it a point to visit me in the hospital wearing a sweater to show me how her breast with the implant looked in a sweater. Then, she said, "Would you like to see how my breast looks without the sweater?" And, when I said I did, she took off her sweater and brassiere to show me how wonderful her breast looked after the reconstruction. It meant a great deal to me -- both to see her breast looking so natural, and to realize that this seventy-year old woman showed me -- a total stranger -- her breasts to make me feel better.

And then Zia made me realize that she cared, too -- but just hadn't been able to express it to me. When she came home for Thanksgiving, she told me about a discussion she'd had with one of her college professors about taking an exam early so she could come home for Thanksgiving. She had become upset when the professor reneged on his earlier commitment and she had left his office in tears. When she told me about it, she said, "That was already a bad day for me, Mom, because that's the day I learned you had a lump."

All these things turned me around. With so much caring and support, how could I be negative? Instead, I was buoyed up by this outpouring of love and support. If so many people cared about me, maybe it was worth living after all. I decided to live.

I learned everything I could about breast cancer. I viewed the disease as my mortal enemy, which, of course, it was, and I was determined to fight for my life. I regularly attended ACS breast cancer support group meetings. I joined ACS and was subsequently elected to the Board of Directors of its D.C. Chapter. I traveled to China as the ACS representative to the First International Conference on Women's Health, studied the treatment and diagnosis of breast cancer there, and reported on it to ACS and in speeches and articles. I made a similar trip to Israel and reported on what I found there. I joined other breast cancer groups and participated in rallies and lobbying for more funds for breast cancer research.

Ultimately, I retired from my position as a lawyer with the Federal government and became a writer. Recently, I completed my memoirs. Many excerpts from it have been published in magazines, journals, and newspapers throughout the United States, Canada, and South Africa and on the internet. I have given readings from it at book stores and book fairs, women's and Jewish organizations, genealogical societies, and universities.

All that began almost eight years ago. I am not the same person I was then. I am aware of my mortality. I am grateful for my life and am determined to make the most of it. I know it is a gift.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes was a founder of NOW and the first woman attorney in the General Counsel's Office at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She is available for talks on the women's rights movement and her role in it as well as readings from her memoirs, written with humor and a Jewish flavor, for a fee plus expenses. She can be contacted at spfuentes@comcast.net.

For Fuentes' experiences with breast implants, see: