In the first installment of our Beauty Marks series on the issues women are facing today we talk with four time breast cancer survivor Arlene Santiago on how she's overcome stigmas and what she does that makes it all worthwhile.
If you were to meet Arlene, the first thing that you would notice is her energy. It’s impossible to ignore how positive she is; it seems to practically radiate from within her. It seems appropriate then, that her middle name is ‘Crystal’. But what you wouldn’t notice is the many times that Arlene’s body has been ravaged by cancer.
Arlene has battled cancer not once or twice, but four times. And despite this, she continues to smile. She has lost both her breasts, struggles with her mobility, and has limited flexibility and strength in one of her shoulders. She’s also one of the most unassuming superheroes you’ll ever meet.
Each day Arlene wakes up at 6:30 in the morning and gets ready for work. She drives from her home in the Bronx to New Jersey, where she works as a medical assistant. She works at her brother’s medical non-profit.
“I’ve always been involved in the medical field – I have my licensing as an EKG technician, and I used to work as a phlebotomist,” she explained.
She jokes that it’s the “perks of being the sister” that allow her to work part-time and have the flexibility to take the time she needs when she’s not feeling well. The after-effects of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy have taken their toll on Arlene, but despite her physical struggles, she says she tries to “just get on with her day” as best she can. For Arlene has work to do: helping the city’s homeless.
Each week, Arlene dips into her personal funds to build hygiene kits for homeless people.
“I live on a fixed income,” she says. “But I always want to take some money and buy things to build my packages.” And so, Arlene buys soaps and washcloths, wet wipes, toothpaste, cologne and perfume and builds her kits. For the women, she makes sure to include feminine products like tampons or sanitary napkins.
And then, she climbs into her car and drives all around the city, from 11:30 at night to around 1:00 in the morning, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, distributing her kits.
And that’s not all she hands out.
“Yeah my car is always full of clothes,” she laughs.
Friends and family give her clothes that she sorts and keeps in her car. And when she encounters someone who might need some, she lets them go through and pick out what they want.
But the most important thing Arlene gives is someone for the city’s most overlooked people to talk to.
“We sit and have conversation,” she says. “A lot of the homeless need someone to talk to. One guy I met was well educated. And he was homeless.”
“His wife had cancer, so he threw himself into that. And he lost everything. And now people pass him by on the street and don’t give him a second look.”
Arlene believes that her struggles have only given her more empathy for others. She hopes that she can pass on this compassion to her children, who often join her for her nightly drives around the city.
“A long time ago,” Arlene says, “my husband and I were going through a rough patch. We lost our home and were staying in a friend’s basement. And, I was pregnant.”
It was a homeless man that lived nearby that made sure Arlene always had something to eat. Most people focus on a homeless person’s dirty clothes, Arlene says. Or their smell. But she never notices.
And even though Arlene has distributed hundreds, and even thousands, of kits over the last fifteen years she’s been doing this, she insists that she is the one who receives the most.
“They are the blessing to me,” she explains, “I feel so blessed by whomever I come across. A lot of people touch my life.”
When she’s not handing out hygiene kits and clothes to the homeless, Arlene is busy helping people who are battling cancer.
“I go over to the Montefiore system and try to help the people there,” she says. “I know what that’s like. You had chemo, and don’t have the energy to do things like the laundry. So I help them with that.”
“Or something like movie tickets,” she continues. “To take the kids to see the movies.”
It’s important to her, to give something to the people that are facing what she has had to face several times in the 47 years she’s been living.
More than a third of adults will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetime.
Help them in their battle
“I was 15 when I was first diagnosed with cancer,” Arlene explains. “Leukemia.”
At the time she was constantly sick, and bleeding.
“I remember my mom praying over me,” she recounts. “Praying over me all the time for a miracle.”
Several years later during a routine gynecological exam, Arlene received more bad news: she was in the early stages of having cervical cancer. Thankfully, she says, they caught it in time.
But then, when she was in her 30’s she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“I had surgery,” Arlene says. “The pathology showed two different types of thyroid cancer. So they removed the entire thyroid.”
But her worst battle was at 38, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had to fight for my life,” she says.
It took almost a year before doctors believed Arlene when she said she knew something was wrong with her breasts. She says they felt wrong. Heavy. “”I knew something was wrong,” she remembers.
But the doctors disagreed. “They just thought that because I had cancer so many times, that I was just panicking over nothing,” she explains.
But the problem was, her tests always came back negative. And mammogram after mammogram, they said they couldn’t find anything. They told Arlene that nothing was wrong, and referred her to a psychologist.
“I remember telling my mom: ‘I know something is wrong’,” Arlene says. “I told her, ‘this year… I’m going to die and my children will be motherless.’”
But after noticing she was distraught, one nurse decided to indulge Arlene, and conducted an ultrasound of her breast.
And there it was. A mass. Doctors thought it was just fluid and went to aspirate. But when they went to extract fluid, nothing came out.
“The nurse’s face went pale,” Arlene says. “She told me: ‘something is wrong’.”
Arlene had a biopsy, and received the news she already knew, but didn’t want to hear: she had breast cancer. What’s more, she was already well into Stage 3.
Doctors told her to get her affairs in order. With 34 of about 40 lymph nodes impacted, they said she wouldn’t make it past 4 years. That was almost 10 years ago.
Since her fight with breast cancer, Arlene has been given a new lease on life. She started her own photography business, after going back to school to learn photography in 2014.
Photos were always a passion, she says, but it was during her time at chemotherapy that she would stare at the pictures on the wall, imagining herself somewhere else.
“I enrolled myself in a women’s photography club, and have had my photography displayed in different galleries,” she says, proudly.
But like everything she does, Arlene uses her skills to give back. Her photography has been used to raise money for the American Cancer Society and the money she gets from clients goes towards making her kits.
And Arlene couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“When I go, I want to go full of love,” she says, smiling. “When I help these people and they smile and tell me their stories… it lifts me up.”
Support Arlene as she helps those battling with cancer. Contribute to her campaign today.
Up next in our Beauty Marks series, we're talking with some of the top fashion and lifestyle bloggers today as they get up close and personal with their own struggles with body image in a world of picture perfection.
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