Maria “Mimi” Nieves – A Story of Reinvention
— by ABCD board member, Gina Rich
February 6, 2018
Mimi Nieves was used to being in control. A single mother with three young children, she worked full-time and always kept her household – and her life – running smoothly. As a member of the Latino community, and the youngest of eleven siblings, Mimi greatly valued her independence and her ability to handle challenges on her own.
Then in December 2005, Mimi’s annual mammogram turned up something suspicious. Further tests revealed that she had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), or abnormal cells confined to a milk duct in her breast. Receiving this cancer diagnosis, Mimi says, “was like being involuntarily checked into a hotel, without the option of checking out.”
At first, Mimi tried to deal with the news in a stoic and composed manner. Appearing weak or acknowledging that she needed help was the last thing she wanted. “I told myself, ‘I can handle this, I can handle this,’” remembers Mimi. “As it turned out, I couldn’t.”
Mimi’s family gathered to support her, and she began evaluating treatment options, deciding on a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. Her recovery period was brief, as she needed to return to work only six weeks after surgery.
“I remember just being so tired,” Mimi recalls. Some evenings, she’d have to excuse herself from the dinner table where her kids were doing homework, just so she could sleep. Her youngest daughter, who was six years old at the time, began to take on a nurturing role as her mother healed. “She learned how to make me coffee and would even brush my teeth each morning,” Mimi explains.
But members of Mimi’s family also struggled with her diagnosis, at times not knowing how to respond. Looking back now, Mimi notes that survivors are not the only ones who suffer due to cancer – co-survivors suffer just as much, if not more.
The Support of Someone Who Understands
Around this time, Mimi’s nurse navigator referred her to ABCD. Soon, Mimi met her mentor, Rosie, who provided the supportive emotional space that Mimi needed. “It’s okay to cry in front of another survivor, because they understand in a way that others can’t,” says Mimi.
Because ABCD was such a key part of her healing process, Mimi wanted to give back and help other patients. After her recovery, she trained to become a mentor, and has since helped several women following their diagnosis. Mimi remains a passionate advocate for improving breast cancer awareness in the Latino community and encouraging women to be proactive about their health.
In 2016, near the ten-year anniversary of her diagnosis, Mimi was surprised to learn that her cancer had returned, this time in her lymph nodes. Her doctors were shocked by this rare complication, but soon recommended a treatment plan including chemotherapy, radiation, and hormonal therapy.
Mimi was reluctant to undergo chemotherapy; once again, she did not want to appear weak or sick. After a great deal of introspection and prayer, however, she decided to move forward with the treatment plan, which was successful. Mimi’s phenomenal attitude and strength are apparent in this statement, “Chemo wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
Reinventing Herself: Hitting the Water, Then Hitting the Books
Just eight months after finishing chemotherapy and radiation, Mimi joined Team Phoenix, a triathlon training program for cancer survivors, coordinated by Aurora Health Care. In July 2017, Mimi completed her first sprint triathlon, which included a challenging lake swim, followed by bike and run segments.
Mimi’s commitment to reinventing herself and living her best possible life didn’t stop at triathlons. In 2018, she enrolled at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) to study nursing, with an ultimate goal of working in pediatric oncology when she graduates. She believes her own experience with cancer will help her be a better caregiver to others.
Between classes and her part-time job, Mimi volunteers extensively for several organizations, including the Kohl’s Healthy Families program through the American Cancer Society, and Operation Chemo Comfort, a Milwaukee organization that donates hats and care packages to patients undergoing treatment.
Despite the obstacles she faced along the way, Mimi now feels that she’s right where she needs to be. “It took me a while to get here,” says Mimi with a grin, “but I’m finally pursuing my dream.”