Life

Absolutely Positive: Finding a Way to Make the Best of a Bad Situation

Eileen López-Tomé is quick with an outstretched hand, a smile, a hug. Give her a pink feather boa, and she immediately strikes a silly pose. She loves to laugh — both at herself and at the rest of the world.

It seems like this mother of five from Miami Springs was born with a sunny outlook, her family says. Her glass-half-full approach to life, which sustained her through a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, continues to fuel her as she strives to help others.

“My dad taught me that no matter what bad circumstances you’re facing, whatever else may be out of your control, you can choose your attitude,” Ms. López-Tomé (pictured above) explained. “For me, being ‘positive’ is about choosing.”

Ms. López-Tomé’s belief is contagious. As she underwent treatment for stage 2 breast cancer, she and her sisters, Evelyn Falcón and Elena López, decided to host a breast cancer awareness event. The gathering generated a flood of support from friends and family, who were encouraged to make donations to Miami Cancer Institute. “It turned into this incredible outpouring of love,” said Ms. Falcón, a speech therapist.

Although Ms. López-Tomé completed her treatment in May, the three sisters decided to hold another fundraiser in October, again drawing an enthusiastic group. Together, they have raised almost $5,000 for Miami Cancer Institute so far.

“I know it’s not going to build a building or change the world, but it’s something,” Ms. López-Tomé said. “We have so little control in this situation. We wanted to do something
for the greater cause.”

Ms. López-Tomé directed the donations to the Patient Care Navigator program. Supported by philanthropy, it assigns cancer patients a staff member who serves as a medical mentor, advocate and companion during treatment. Ms. López-Tomé said her navigator, Tania Silva-Santos, R.N., was a key member of her treatment team. “She walked me through everything that was going to happen during my treatment, she helped me get a wig,” Ms. López-Tomé said.

“When I called her, she always answered. If she was not available, she would get back to me very quickly. She was very caring and compassionate.”

In fact, Ms. López-Tomé, 48, was impressed with the kindness of everyone at Miami Cancer Institute. She loved
her medical oncologist, Grace Wang, M.D., and her breast surgeon, Gladys Giron, M.D. She also developed a particularly close relationship with Grisell Lazcano, the patient financial counselor who helped determine her insurance benefits.

“I loved Miami Cancer Institute — loved it, loved it, loved it,” said Ms. López-Tomé. “It’s a beautiful place, and the people are always warm and welcoming and professional, even down to the valet who parks your car. There was a personal touch at every level.”

Ms. López-Tomé, the chief of staff for the local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, would arrive for each chemotherapy treatment in a different costume. She dressed as a cowboy to “round up all those cancer cells,” for example. She dressed as a superhero so she could “leap over cancer in a single bound.”

Her playful approach doesn’t mean she didn’t take her cancer seriously, however. When you have five children — ages 4, 14, 16, 23 and 26 — you need to be strong and healthy. “Some days were harder than others,” she said. “There were days when I was angry, depressed, fearful — days when I wondered whether I would see my children grow up. There were days when I shook my fist at the heavens and cried, ‘Why me, God?’ ”

But she consciously fought her way back, she said, by “reframing.” “I might be in the middle of a depressing thought or a bad day, and I would interrupt myself and say, what can I be grateful for today, right this minute? It might be that someone did something kind for me, or even that the anti-nausea meds were working and I didn’t throw up that day. I would try to find something, anything.”

Ms. López-Tomé is now cancer-free following chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, the removal of 11 lymph nodes and 27 rounds of radiation. She is more positive than ever, joining a number of cancer-awareness causes and fundraisers. She even rows on a women’s dragon boat team made up entirely of survivors. And she hopes to keep holding the now-annual fundraiser with her sisters.

“It helps bring meaning to my experience and everything I went through. That’s really what it’s about — to leave some positive legacy out of a scary, terrible experience,” she said. “That’s what survival means to me — you keep living your life every day, and you try to contribute in honor of those who are going through this now, and for the women who
went through it and did not survive.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 13 hospitals, more than 23,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 100 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.