For one mom, cancer presented an opportunity to teach her daughters empathy.
As I approach five years since my breast cancer diagnosis, I reflect on how my life has changed. I realize that, in some ways, it has gotten better.
Don’t get me wrong: My cancer diagnosis was the most inconvenient, depressing and costly experience I have ever had to deal with. I was 35, raising two young children, living a fast-paced life and had no time to stop.
After the shock settled, I went through a double mastec- tomy, expanders, six months of chemotherapy, reconstruc- tion and hysterectomy. Today I still take an aromatase inhibitor medication.
Cancer was not supposed to be in my cards. I was healthy and fit, scheduled all my doctor visits when I was supposed to and had no family history. So why did this
happen? I decided not to dwell on that question during and after my treatment but instead focused on another: What am I going to do about it?
With the help of my family and my entire village, I was able to get through the long journey. My daughters, Emma and Cora, who at the time of my diagnosis were 6 and 5, respectively, were my biggest champions. Some people cautioned me not to tell them the whole truth about my illness. They said that kids don’t need to be exposed to so much at such a young age.
I quickly realized that not only did my kids get it, but they also encouraged me to fight as hard as I could. They helped me face the illness in different ways. They asked that we continue our routine outings on my good days and even suggested that I not wear a wig during the hot summer days. The latter felt like someone had removed shackles from my feet.
Along the way, the experience taught Emma and Cora empathy. My daughters, without knowing it, had become little advocates for people with the illness. Emma started wearing headbands with the cancer ribbon, and Cora decided to make healthier food choices because she knew that what she put in her body would have an effect on her life. They looked at exercise as a requirement, not as a strenuous inconvenience. When we met people who shared an issue, health-related or not, the girls would hug them and reassure them that they would be OK. Cancer had taught the girls life’s most important lessons: kindness and empathy — and all before they turned 10!
That experience led me to write two children’s books that would empower parents, families, hospitals and teachers to start the conversation with children about cancer. “Hair to the Queen!” is told in the voice of 7-year-old Corazon as she prepares for a costume party to celebrate her birthday. Corazon’s mother is battling cancer and wears a wig after losing her hair. With the help of her father, sister and friends, Corazon uses her birthday celebration as an opportunity to plan a special surprise for her courageous mom. “Hair to the Queen!” emphasizes family support, which for me was as critical as chemotherapy and the other treatments.
The sequel, “Teo the Great,” focuses on having hope. Teo is a courageous boy who beats cancer against all odds. While in and out of chemotherapy sessions to treat his leukemia, Teo continues to attend school and soccer practice. He and his teammates work on a passion project that offers hope to other children in difficult situations.
Cancer was unfortunate. I realize that I am fortunate to be here today, alive and healthy.
The journey and its lessons have given me a renewed sense of purpose, and that is why my life is better after cancer. My purpose is to give hope to people who may look at cancer as the end or as a stigma. My hope is that by involving children in the conversation, we will raise healthier and more compassionate human beings. These children will continue the mission and, at the same time, make the world a better place. As cliche as it sounds, it is the truth and I have hope — just like Teo.
TAMARA B. RODRIGUEZ is a graduate of the University of Miami who spent more than a decade in the financial industry. For the past eight years, she has served as the chief financial officer for Fatima Group, a Miami-based corporate holding company. Rodriguez has been involved in The Alfred Béliard Foundation, founded by her grandfather, which focuses on cancer education, early prevention and treatment. She is also part of the Haitian American Leadership Organization. Originally from Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Tamara lives in Florida with her husband and two daughters and enjoys reading, fitness and spending time with family and friends. “Hair to the Queen!” (Fatima Group, September 2016) and “Teo the Great” (Fatima Group, December 2018), both illustrated by Carole A. Smith, are available on Amazon.com.