When Susan Villanueva was just 11 months old, she was diagnosed with cancer. It took her a long time to come to grips with her experience — but more than 50 years later, she is serving as inspiration for patients, survivors, and beyond.
In 1969, Villanueva was originally taken to the hospital to address symptoms of fevers and labored breathing. An X-ray revealed she was suffering from a collapsed lung — the result of a tumor growing in her chest. Villanueva was officially diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer that originates in immature nerve cells and is found primarily in infants and children.
Villanueva immediately underwent surgery to remove the mass before receiving the rest of her treatment at what is now Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. By the time she was four, she had finished her regimen, and doctors told her parents she was cancer-free. Since then, the cancer has not returned.
“It may sound strange, but I have looked to find the good that has come out of this,” Villanueva says. “Without it, I would not be the person I am today.”
It was hard for Villanueva to grapple with her diagnosis as child. She wasn’t always able to keep up with the other kids, and radiation therapy stunted the growth of one of her lungs. She also remembers constantly questioning whether she had done something wrong to get cancer in the first place. It was only with the help and support of her parents that she was slowly able to adjust to her “new normal.”
“My parents were my biggest blessing,” says Villanueva. “The way they handled everything helped me grow and become a better person.”
Today, Villanueva chooses to focus on the happy memories of her childhood. When she looks back, she remembers playing secretary at her father’s office before going to her appointments, and eating grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch at the Jimmy Fund Clinic.
Now, Villanueva is the proud mother of three children of her own — something doctors initially told her would be impossible. She works as a dietary aid for patients with Alzheimer’s and is open to sharing her story with others, something she never thought she would feel comfortable doing.
Villanueva says she’s drawn strength and inspiration from an unusual source: butterflies. Just like the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, she says, the journey from cancer patient to cancer survivor is also one that requires strength, patience, and a transformation of your own — all of which ultimately leads to growth.
“Like the butterfly, you are stronger than you look,” Villanueva wrote in an essay. “The roots of your soul were being watered and formed. When you emerged as a cancer survivor, you have grown. You will feel weathered but alive. And most importantly, you will be strong.”