‘My Children Were My Motivation’: One Mother’s Fight To Stay Alive

Belkis Chalas

Belkis Chalas has lived with advanced cancer for 17 years and has built a fulfilling life with her children despite the daily unknowns

Cancer knows no borders or languages. For most people newly diagnosed with cancer, it’s hard enough trying to understand their diagnosis, treatment options, and the life changes that lie ahead without also having to contend with a language barrier. The challenges are even more daunting for people facing an advanced, life-threatening disease.

This is exactly what happened to Belkis Chalas. She was a 40-year-old mother of two young children when she was told in December 2004 that she had stage 4 cancer of the small intestine and had only weeks to live.

Belkis recently sat down to discuss her experience with medical oncologist Diane Reidy-Lagunes, the host of Cancer Straight Talk from MSK, a podcast for people with cancer and their loved ones. Belkis, joined by her son, Emmanuel, and her daughter, Lisbeth, shared how she handled her devastating diagnosis 17 years ago and went on to build a fulfilling life despite the daily unknowns. Belkis’ nurse, Elizabeth Cruz, also joined the conversation to discuss how she and her Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) colleagues supported Belkis during her cancer journey.

Facing a Bleak Diagnosis

Belkis came to the United States from the Dominican Republic for help with ongoing bowel issues. When she awoke from an exploratory surgery to address what was thought to be an intestinal blockage, she was shocked and overwhelmed to hear that she had an aggressive cancer that had spread. It was already too advanced to treat, and she only had weeks to live.

“The doctor did not give me much hope, and that’s when the darkness of my life began,” she remembers. She started to think about the magnitude of the situation, questioning God: “After giving me the gift of motherhood, are you going to take me and allow my children to become orphaned? Why me?”

It was a bleak diagnosis, but Belkis did not face it alone. Her children gave her a reason to live, and she was grateful to have them by her side. “My children were my motivation and my strength. My family helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Lost in Translation

Before coming to MSK, it was difficult for Belkis to navigate care because she could not speak English. It was often frustrating and time-consuming to wait for an interpreter to come and help her.

Emmanuel and Lisbeth — who grew up watching their mother bravely endure years of pain, countless doctor’s appointments, emergency room visits, and grueling treatments — also became her voice as they got older. They helped to explain her symptoms and communicate with doctors on her behalf.

But Belkis longed to be able to speak for herself not only because there was the possibility of having something lost in translation but also because she wanted to shield her kids from what she was going through.

As much as Belkis wanted to prevent her children from seeing her at her worst, it was inevitable. “They grew up hearing about cancer and watching their sick mother who could not accompany them to the park, take them to the movies, or go to meetings at school,” she recalls. “But I always took advantage of the moments when I felt good, and we went out together as a family.”

Surviving Advanced Cancer With Support From MSK

When Belkis arrived at MSK, she was surprised to discover that MSK had experts who specialize in her specific type of cancer and that it could be treated with medications. “My doctor said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of you here.’ I could now see life with hope, and my life changed completely!” she happily remembers.

She was even more elated to know that she would be able to communicate in Spanish with her care team, which now includes her nurse, Elizabeth, and Dr. Reidy-Lagunes, both of whom are fluent in the language.

When I first spoke with Dr. Reidy-Lagunes, I finally felt centered, because I could express myself and I didn’t need a person to translate for me or explain how I felt,” says Belkis. “I also really connected with my nurse, Elizabeth. Whenever I have a situation, I can talk to her and she understands me.”

Part of Elizabeth’s role as a nurse is to provide psychological and emotional support, and to educate patients and their families about their cancer and treatments. This helps to alleviate some of their fear and uncertainty about what is going to happen next.

“We talk about what’s important to Belkis, and we try to make sure that all of her needs are identified and provide the resources she needs,” Elizabeth explains. “Listening to our patients with patience, compassion, and respect is super important, and having that relationship where we can speak the same language is powerful.”

Belkis continues to live with stage 4 cancer, reassured that MSK and her family are there to support her in meaningful ways.

To learn more about Belkis’ experience with cancer, tune in to this special episode of Cancer Straight Talk from MSK, in Spanish.