Self-advocacy saved Natalia Muñoz’s life.
Eight years ago, the colombiana was breastfeeding her newborn baby when she felt a lump in her breast. At the time of her son’s birth, she was diagnosed with a clogged milk duct, so Muñoz and her Miami-based doctor thought it was happening again. But something was different this time around: She wasn’t experiencing the same pain and fever, prompting the mother to return to her doctor.
“My doctor was calm. She said, ‘I don’t think it’s anything, but I’ll double-check,’” Muñoz told us.
In time, the new mom learned she had triple-negative breast cancer, a rare form of the disease that mostly affects young women. Muñoz felt like she had no choice but to get educated. After arming herself with new knowledge, she realized the doctors and facilities in her hometown were not best equipped to help her, so she found experts who were in New York.
“When I was diagnosed here in Miami, no one raised the issue of infertility. The chances of becoming sterile after chemo are high, and I was young. In New York, someone sat down with me and told me I may not conceive again, sharing options like freezing my eggs,” she said.
Four years later, a cancer-free Muñoz did have another baby. Today, those children are four and eight years old, and Muñoz, 40, is sharing her story and helping young Latinas with breast cancer across the country. Her advocacy, for herself and others, even caught the attention of Ford’s Warriors in Pink, who named her one of its “models of courage.”
Ahead, the Inspiring Latina opens up about her diagnosis, how her then-newborn saved her life and why Latinas can’t be afraid to question their doctors.
You were breastfeeding your newborn, what’s supposed to be a beautiful moment, when you felt a lump. Can you talk about that?
I always say breastfeeding saved my life, because I wasn’t good at checking myself and my tumor was way back in my breasts. When my son was born, I had a clogged duct, so when I felt the lump again, my first thought was it was that again. But this time it wasn’t painful and I didn’t have a fever, so I went to the doctor and they told me to return in two weeks if it was still there. I did, and by that time it was about the size of a pea. The doctor then scheduled an ultrasound because, since I was breastfeeding, a mammogram only showed up milk. The ultrasound showed a round lump, which my doctor said didn’t look like cancer because it’s not typically so round. Just to be on the safe side, they did a biopsy, and that revealed that it was triple-negative breast cancer, which is a very aggressive form. The negativity comes from the fact that many cancer treatment options won’t work in these cases.
Wow! So what's going through your head when you get the triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis and also learn that you carry the BRCA1 mutation?
Oh god. That time was kind of a blur for me, so many things at the same time. I wanted to get it out of my body and get treatment. I was very worried about my baby and was sad about having to stop breastfeeding. I had a lot to deal with. The good thing is that Latino families rally around each other in times of need. My mom came from Colombia to help me with the baby and my mother in law did, too. My siblings and cousins helped when I needed it. My boss was also very supportive. He asked me if I wanted to stop working, but I didn’t want to leave work completely because I didn’t want cancer to be the only thing my life revolved around, so I worked part time. I was just trying to get my baby’s life healthy and also doing research because I had to live with this little guy.
It can be difficult for women, especially Latinas who may not understand the language or culture, to push or question their doctors. After all, they're the experts. How did you self-advocate?
My first thing was to learn as much as I could. Sometimes, people’s first response is to shut down. It’s scary to look at the information. But, for me, it was the only option. I needed to learn more. I had to make a lot of decisions and live with what I decided. I had a baby to respond to. So I educated myself, learning more about what I had, which led me to reach out to the right doctors to treat me. Triple-negative breast cancer represents just 15 percent of the breast cancer population, so not many doctors specialize in it. Also, I was young, in my 30s, and most doctors and centers aren’t prepared to deal with young patients who aren’t, for example, dealing with menopause. So I learned to inform myself. I learned the value of second opinions. I learned about going with your gut.
How did your then-six-month baby drive you to fight?
When I tell people my story, they say it must have been so hard. True, the logistics may have been hard, but having a young child made my journey easier to bear because I had this baby to focus on. Even when I was feeling bad from chemo, I didn’t have the luxury to sit down. When I look back at the last eight years, cancer is there. It shaped my life in different ways, but my highlight is my kid. They support you in the most surprising ways – just by being there. He needed me, and I needed to be there for him; it was a motivation.
Breast cancer is pretty often misdiagnosed as a clogged milk duct. In fact, I just read a story about a newlywed who died because of this misdiagnosis. As someone whose doctor first assumed the same, but kept pushing, what advice do you have for our Latina readers who suspect a lump?
You are your best advocate. It may be scary because you don’t want to find out that you have cancer, but treating it early gives you better chances. If you have a doubt, keep pushing. Another doctor might have a different diagnosis. I know so many stories in my years working with the breast cancer community. Doctors say “you’re too young” and then you’re dismissed, but the number of young women getting breast cancer is growing. You have to advocate for yourself. Our culture deems doctors to be the people who have the last words, but they’re human. They make mistakes. You have the right to look for another opinion.
Although breast cancer rates are lower among Latinas than among women of other races and ethnicities, we are 20 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women because of a lack of access to treatment and mammograms. What are your thoughts about this?
It has to do with treatment and diagnosis and the fact that a lot of Latinas are uninsured. But there is help. My friend’s nanny, who is uninsured, just had a scare, but we got her care through a local organization. She was able to get an inexpensive mammogram. She was scared. That’s normal. But together we took it one step at a time. Being scared and not having money can’t stop you from checking yourself. With that, we do need better health insurance coverage and we need to know more about our options. We don’t like to talk about these things. It’s not something we are vocal on. But we have options.
How are you now helping other women?
I’m very active in the breast cancer community, especially in young and Latino groups. It was hard for me to find people like me at the beginning. In Miami, there are many Cubans, so I found a nice group of Latina ladies, but they were much older. I found younger people, those under 40, online. I also found support groups for women with triple-negative breast cancer on the Internet. When this group started, there were 250 people. Now, there are 3,000, from all over the world. Whenever people ask things in Spanish, they’re referred to me. I’ve been very active in these groups over the years, translating important materials in Spanish and engaging in annual meet-ups with other Latinas.
I’m privileged in many ways: I had access to great insurance, I’m educated and my dad is a doctor. But a lot of people don’t have these privileges, so I come with a responsibility to give back.
Your firstborn son is eight years old now. What does he think of his mami?
We’ve started to talk about it over the last couple of years. He saw me going to conferences and now that he’s older and knows what cancer is, I tell him, “You’re my miracle. You saved my life.” He feels good and proud. We go to walks together, and he tells his friends, “my mom survived.” He doesn’t have a big grasp, but every time he sees me going and I get a t-shirt or medal, he feels special. I want him to know.