“Maybe you don’t have hair, but you are a woman, a beautiful woman,” Jacqueline Abreu, a breast and thyroid cancer survivor, often repeated. “Maybe you don’t have a breast, but you continue being a woman and you are a beautiful woman.”
Abreu, a resident of Pelham Bay, told this to herself in protest a decade ago after her boyfriend at the time – following her mastectomy – criticized the way her uneven breasts looked. He told her a man would never treat her “like a woman” because she had a breast removed. They ended their relationship, and she decided to continue on with her life, starting fresh and loving herself.
“I’m alive,” said Abreu, who did eventually undergo breast reconstruction surgery. “I’m smiling [and] I have a beautiful life.”
Now, the 55-year-old survivor shares the same sentiment with people diagnosed with what they thought was once unthinkable.
Abreu volunteers with Montefiore-Einstein’s Bronx Oncology Living Daily (BOLD), which is part of the integrative oncology program. The initiative focuses on treating the “mind, body, and spirit” to use in conjunction with patients’ physical cancer treatments. BOLD offers free wellness workshops and support groups, ranging in topics from nutrition to painting and even ways to quit smoking.
The BOLD Buddy Program pairs up cancer survivors like Abreu with Montefiore patients to talk about how they coped with their diagnoses and what their lives are like after overcoming the illness.
Abreu told The Bronx Times that people have trouble imagining facing the disease themselves, just as she did a decade ago. She had felt a pain come and go on her left side, but still waited six months to get a mammogram – the first one she had in a few years.
“I see too many women, that when they hear about cancer, they say ‘this is only for a few people,’” she said. “I say ‘no, the lottery for cancer is for everyone.’”
The mother of two daughters, Abreu was shocked when, at the age of 46, she was diagnosed with cancer because she had viewed herself as healthy, hard-working and strong.
“You really think that can’t be possible,” she added.
Young and middle-aged people tend to hold a misconception that they don’t have to worry about screenings if they feel healthy, Abreu said. Also, just the idea of being diagnosed with cancer is too painful for some people – they’d rather not think about it and avoid getting a mammogram altogether.
“Go and do it,” she demanded, for anyone reading. “And be sure that you are healthy.”
Abreu also warned of another misconception regarding people thinking they don’t need to get screened because their results were OK in the past. So were Abreu’s.
Once the perceived impossible became reality for her, she said everything changed.
After her diagnosis, Abreu stopped working long hours as a medical home aid and learned to take time to rest during the day. Things she used to care about – her car, her house and other material items – all became secondary. Her family and wellbeing became her focus.
“Give the most beautiful time to your family,” she said. “Give yourself the opportunity to be happy with the little things.”
To Abreu, having a positive mindset is an extremely important aspect of coping with a cancer diagnosis.
“You can’t be sad, because this illness doesn’t like that,” she said.
When Abreu speaks with patients receiving chemotherapy, she tells them she knows it won’t be easy, but they must believe they will survive. She says to never give up – and assures them they will have the opportunity to not just get better, but better know who they are.
“You are not your breast,” she said. “You are not your hair. You are not your foot or leg – you are not that. You are a woman that has feelings, that has a beautiful life, and it doesn’t matter that you have to cut both breasts. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is how you feel inside.”
Aliya Schneider is a contributor for the Bronx Times. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes.