“My name is Yoli Origel, I am a 12-year survivor of Stage 3 Triple Negative Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (Breast Cancer).
I have been a patient of St. Joseph’s Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment since December 2007, and most recently a patient of Hoag Hospital Presbyterian. After my diagnosis, I battled cancer with 16 weeks of dose-dense chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, 7 weeks of daily radiation treatments, a latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction surgery with tissue expanders and many subsequent reconstructive surgeries. Additionally, I am a BRCA 1 breast cancer gene carrier, which was a major factor in my decision to proactively have a life-saving radical hysterectomy to decrease my heightened risk of ovarian and other gynecologic cancers.
Soon after my diagnosis, I was asked to mentor newly diagnosed breast cancer patients by my breast surgeon. Since then, I have been actively mentoring patients for more than 10 years at the request of various doctors, friends, acquaintances and other contacts. As a survivor, it has and continues to be incredibly fulfilling and an honor to serve as a mentor for patients who are just entering their personal cancer storms. I never wanted to be an expert in cancer survival, but I braved the storm and in the process, I’ve learned a lot about cancer; the fear it instills, its harshness to the body, but most importantly, I’ve learned about the healing power of human connections and the resiliency of a cancer fighter’s spirit.
The first time I heard the word “cancer” I was just 7 year’s old. I don’t recall a time during my childhood that I didn’t know the word “cancer.” My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and valiantly fought until she passed away at the age of 42 from stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that spread to her brain. I was 10 years old when she passed away.
Watching her fight the biggest battle of her life, while being a full-time mom to 7 children and a loving wife to my father was inspiring for me even at that early age. I didn’t know the meaning of “patient advocate” back then, but that’s what I was for my mother. My mom’s primary language was Spanish, and she needed translation support that I was able to provide when I joined her at her doctor’s visits. Even as child, I understood the difficulties of having a language barrier and I felt pressure of having to provide accurate medical information to help my mom make medical decisions. I realize now, that even though I was exposed to the difficulties of a cancer battle at an early age, I didn’t fully understand what my mom was going through: the fear she undoubtedly experienced; the physical pain from chemotherapy treatments that were much harder on a person’s body than it is now; and the sadness she must’ve felt knowing that she would be leaving behind her young children to be raised by a single father.
I wish the adult version of myself, the cancer survivor, could’ve been there to provide my mom the emotional support that she undoubtedly needed: a listening ear, a hand to hold and a shoulder to cry on during her darkest days. I wouldn’t have been able to save her from the vicious cancer that ultimately took her life, but she would’ve had someone nearby who understood what she was going through. Since my mom passed away in 1986, and even since my own diagnosis in 2007, there have been significant advances in cancer treatments and surgeries and the number of cancer-related deaths are lower than ever before.
But nevertheless, my family was impacted once more when my youngest sister was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in 2014 that had spread to both breasts, bones, lungs, and brain. She died when I was seven years into my own cancer survival, on December 26, 2014.
After she died, I experienced survivor guilt and a profound sadness that prompted a deeper examination of my own beliefs and reason for my survival. I soon realized that the level of care and support that I had provided my sister allowed her to die with dignity and upmost care. I would not have been able support her at the level that she needed had I not gone through my own cancer experience.
My knowledge allowed me to be her patient advocate: an active participant and decision-maker in the care planning meetings with her physicians and nursing staff. My experience as my sister’s advocate and as a patient mentor over the years has taught me a valuable lesson in the power of human connections. I truly believe in the benefits of patient-survivor mentorship relationships and individualized support programs because I’ve seen, first-hand, the difference it has made in the lives of newly diagnosed patients.
Human connection can be a great healer. Additionally socialization amongst survivors can be an empowering experience and the camaraderie that a cancer patient can experience when they meet and connect with fellow survivors can be life-changing, enhance their quality of life and reduce depressive symptoms which ultimately impacts long-term health outcomes.
With more cancer survivors alive today than ever before, there is much work to be done to support this growing population. My purpose in life and personal mission are to help patients adjust to their “new normal” lives as survivors with the development of sustainable and impactful programs and services offered by Cancer Kinship.
The creation and facilitation of opportunities for cancer patients and survivors to connect with one another, combined with individualized and group survivorship support and socialization programs, will empower cancer patients to regain control of their health and future. My long-term vision for Cancer Kinship is a community where anyone affected by cancer – no matter where they stand in their journey – are able to brave the storm together; confidently and fearlessly.”
~ Yolanda Origel
Executive Director & Founder of Cancer Kinship