Some might say that my family has been unlucky, but I would say it's quite the opposite. Both my sister and my father have been diagnosed with cancer, and both experiences have changed my and my family's life forever.
My connection to cancer began 28 years ago, in 1986, when my sister was diagnosed with lymphoblastic or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. At that time, treatment was not readily available in Chile, so my parents traveled to Memphis, Tennessee in order for my sister to receive experimental treatment at St. Jude Children's Hospital. It was an extremely difficult time for my family. My three siblings and I had to stay in Chile without the ability to easily talk to our parents while worrying about the outcome of my sister's health.
As a mother of four healthy children, now I am able to imagine how painful it must have been for my parents to receive such devastating news about their daughter while leaving their four other children in Chile. Thankfully, everything turned out well, and we were able to celebrate that my then 2-year-old sister's cancer was cured. Just three years later, though, our family was given another devastating diagnosis: My father had myeloblastic leukemia.
Again my parents had to travel, this time to Houston, Texas where my father had a bone marrow transplant, a surgery which was not yet available in Chile. The six of us children had to stay in Chile again, far from our parents, with the same fears of not knowing what was happening or what might be coming. But, we were and are lucky that my father is now healthy and living a happy, normal life.
The harrowing experiences of what our family, and especially our mother, went through left a lasting impression, which inspired us to create the Sacred Family House Foundation of Aid for Children with Cancer (Fundación de Ayuda al Niño Oncológico Casa de la Sagrada Familia) in 2001. The organization has a shelter for mothers and their children with cancer, all of whom have to travel from afar to Santiago in order to receive the potentially life-saving treatment they need. These children and their mothers are given housing, food and a thorough assessment of their support needs in order for the young patients to have the best outcomes possible. The caretakers, just like my own mother, are dealing with the tremendous stress of having a child with a serious life-threatening illness while at the same time being separated from their other children for an extended period of time.
In our view, it's fundamental that the mother remain with the child during treatment. We have seen how important it is to accompany the children and help them learn the basic rules of hygiene and correct nutrition that must be followed during and after their treatment. In order to give them the ideal nutrition throughout this process, the assistance we have received from Johnson & Johnson has been crucial in supporting our nutritional program. Especially for children who are having bone marrow transplants, proper nutrition can often have a very high financial cost which many families would otherwise not be able to afford.
When we first began the foundation 13 years ago, we started with two small shelters that could fit seven children and their mothers total. After years of work providing the best services and support possible to our families and seeking additional funders, this year we were able to celebrate the inauguration of a new larger shelter which can house 31 children and their mothers. Since 2001, more than 250 children have passed through our doors, and we are still the only shelter in Chile that houses children after bone marrow transplant surgery. According to the Luis Calvo Mackenna Hospital, the only public hospital in Chile that performs this surgery, each year an estimated 500 children are diagnosed with cancer, with approximately 20 of those receiving bone marrow transplants. If this shelter did not exist, these children would not be able to have the surgery, and the consequences could ultimately be fatal.
I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to dedicate my life and my profession to helping families who have to confront the painful reality of a child's illness without having all the resources to give them everything they need in that moment. I feel lucky that my family has been able to use what we have been through to work to ensure that children in Chile receive the best possible treatment in the best possible conditions with the invaluable support of their families.
Editor's Note: Johnson & Johnson is a sponsor of The Huffington Post's Global Motherhood section.