Surviving Breast Cancer, One Box at a Time
By Deborah Salomon
Only champions get their pictures on cereal boxes. Eli Arroyo-Allen won no medals, scaled no peaks or ran no marathons. Yet a photograph of this Whispering Pines woman smiles back from boxes of Cheerios, Fiber One and other General Mills products released during October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Overcoming breast cancer is Arroyo-Allen's triumph. In December, she was chosen one of five "ambassadors" for the food manufacturer's Pink Together campaign, anchored by a website where 680,000 women exchange stories.
General Mills will use Arroyo-Allen, of Cuban descent, to reach Latina women battling the disease.
"I am blessed to have an incredible family, a good job, a fabulous boss and good insurance," Arroyo-Allen says. "I thought, what can I do to say thank you?"
So, beyond online mentoring through Pink Together, Arroyo-Allen started Amando La Vida - Loving Life - to support Spanish-speaking Sandhills women undergoing treatment.
"I noticed Hispanic women who seemed lost," she says. "They may not understand what the doctor is telling them, which causes anxiety. If I make a difference to just one lady - that's great."
Arroyo-Allen, fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, concentrates on coping skills, not medical information. She is compassionate, upbeat, a good listener. Her first get-together, a covered-dish supper in Sanford, drew 49 women.
"This was (Latina) ladies opening up to one another. I tell them my story, where I'm at. I remind them not to miss mammograms, to eat well."
Arroyo-Allen came to Moore County from Miami in 2004 with her teenage son, Jordan Diaz, seeking a lifestyle change in a smaller community.
Jordan, a basketball fan, wanted to attend high school and college in North Carolina. Arroyo-Allen fell in love with Moore County, equidistant from Duke and UNC. In Miami, Allen headed beverage licensing for a law firm. Here, she became public information officer for Moore County.
Arroyo-Allen's mother and elderly aunt followed.
"You have to understand, Cuban families are very close," she explains.
Eli Arroyo married David Allen, a naval officer and part of the joint command at Fort Bragg, in 2006. Since then, he has been deployed five times.
'Helped Me Grow'
Women know that relocation means finding the right hairdresser, auto mechanic and gynecologist. Yet Arroyo-Allen allowed a year to pass without obtaining the mammogram ordered by Dr. Pamela Kantorowski, her new physician. Finally, Arroyo-Allen made an appointment.
The healthy, fit 45-year-old with no familial breast cancer history was alarmed when asked to return for more radiography, then a needle biopsy.
"It was Dec. 16, 2008," she says. "David was packing to leave (for Afghanistan). I got a call saying I had Stage 1 breast cancer and to see a surgeon right away," Arroyo-Allen says. "Surreal."
David Allen could not delay deployment. Eighteen-year-old Jordan became his mother's rock. They spent hours together researching treatments, including the macrobiotic diet which Arroyo-Allen adopted.
The diagnosis hit Jordan hard, especially since a friend's mother had ovarian cancer.
"Having it hit so close to home changed my perception of reality," he says.
During his mother's debilitating treatments, Jordan, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had to assume responsibility for himself. "This helped me to grow."
Arroyo-Allen sought several medical opinions before deciding on the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center for her surgeries. Mastectomy was discussed but, in January 2009, after extensive testing, she chose lumpectomy, nodal dissection, chemotherapy and radiation.
Her mother and aunt moved in. A firefighter cousin from Tampa showed up to help with heavy work. Jordan offered to skip a semester since his stepfather was still in Afghanistan.
Arroyo-Allen's steely spirit, along with her faith, prevailed. During dark moments, she prayed at a rose-encircled shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in her garden.
Arroyo-Allen lost her hair but felt comfortable without a wig.
"Cancer is nothing to be embarrassed about," she says.
In fact, sharing her journey with co-workers seemed right. This decision impressed Arroyo-Allen's "fabulous boss," County Manager Cary McSwain.
"At first, Eli seemed shocked and kept her feelings close," McSwain says. "Then she started sharing. I was amazed at her discipline. She changed her diet and wouldn't go within 10 feet of sugar. She was a model of a positive personality."
Although Arroyo-Allen's family provided emotional and physical support, ultimately she faced the cancer alone.
"On the day of surgery, I was the only one who stepped inside (the procedure room)," she says.
Later, at the first chemotherapy session, Arroyo-Allen turned to her mother and uttered, "Oh my God, I am one of them. At that moment, it was just me."
Jordan broke down only once during his mother's treatment. Arroyo-Allen realizes this release was a necessary part of his support.
During her recovery, Arroyo-Allen, already a blogger, discovered Pink Together, the online community for survivors and their families.
In conjunction with Pink Together, in four years General Mills has contributed $2.25 million to Susan B. Komen for the Cure. Each year Pink Together ambassadors are chosen based on ethnic diversity, personality and their journeys.
"We were simply blown away by Eli's story," says General Mills spokeswoman Andrea Stein. "We were drawn to her passion, conviction and strength - and the fact that she turned this scary moment into something positive."
General Mills contacted Arroyo-Allen about becoming one of five virtual spokeswomen for Pink Together.
"I thought this was one of Dave and Jordan's jokes," she says.
Hardly. General Mills flew her to Minneapolis for three days to meet the other ambassadors and Susan B. Komen representatives. Following interviews, conferences, wardrobe and makeup sessions, more than a thousand photos were taken for use on cereal boxes and other marketing materials released during the annual observance.
Cancer drug manufacturer AstraZeneca initiated National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 1985. The wide range of pink products, called "pinkwashing," has been branded exploitive by Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a nonprofit watchdog group.
BCA says some of these products have nothing to do with the disease and may even contain ingredients associated with cancer. They advise consumers to investigate percentage of profits donated to recognized cancer organizations, a position supported by the American Cancer Society. However, scams are rare and the cumulative effort of pink products and October events has increased awareness while raising hundreds of millions for research.
"Overall, the General Mills products met my standards," Arroyo-Allen says. "We talked to the General Mills people. They truly believe in what they're doing. That's what counts."
When McSwain spotted Fiber One boxes bearing his colleague's picture on a supermarket shelf, he bought a case. Jordan saw them for the first time at Harris Teeter in Carrboro.
"Very cool," he thought.
Fame is fleeting. What stuck with McSwain was watching Arroyo-Allen reach out to others now that she is cancer-free.
A year has passed. Lustrous chestnut-brown hair covers Arroyo-Allen's head. Her eyes are bright, her strength is returning, spurred by advocacy for Latina women.
But the experience lingers.
"Once you're a cancer patient you're there forever," she says. "You learn not to take the hummingbirds for granted."
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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