Selene Jiménez, who had a mastectomy in November 2020, describes her ongoing efforts to connect breast cancer survivors with resources like prosthetic breasts. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

For Selene Jiménez, the year-and-a-half since she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy has been the best part of her life.

In March 2020, Jiménez, then 36, had already seen her gynecologist because of a hard spot in her left breast, but a regular ultrasound exam showed nothing unusual. When her symptoms did not subside, she sought a second opinion.

Jiménez, the mother of two daughters now ages 8 and 4, said that as soon as her mammogram began, “I felt as if all my blood had drained away. I thought, ‘I have cancer.’ Of course, you’re filled with fear and uncertainty, you immediately think of death.”

“When they tell you that you have cancer, you think, ‘Am I going to die?’ And I thought about my girls. They’re so young. You just think of a thousand things.”

“I decided I want to do this differently. I didn’t want to become depressed, I didn’t want to keep being afraid. I wanted to face this in a different way. I understood that I had to heal myself from the inside and free myself from many fears, guilt, mistakes, all of the negative, all of the bad, get it out.”

Jiménez had always performed regular self-exams, which made her diagnosis even more shocking. She would spend the next six months receiving weekly chemotherapy treatments, but she also made the decision to try as many natural remedies as she could. She bought wigs and essential oils, made radical changes to her diet and began to exercise.

“I would arrive at chemo at 7 in the morning, very dressed up, with my wig, with my makeup done, with high heels. I would wear my best clothes, like if I was going out to dinner or out dancing,” Jiménez said. “I thought, ‘I am here so that they can give me my little drops of life.’”

As she and about 40 other patients sat in their reclining chairs every Monday for four hours, alone because pandemic restrictions prohibited visitors, they began to get to know each other.

“I would bring my oils and we would put them on and we would meditate. I made a group on WhatsApp. They began to invite other people from other clinics. So word began to spread. And then one colleague said suddenly, ‘Please make a video, tell us what you’re doing, send us a message,’” she said. “So I started to do that every morning. I would send them a little video to get their spirits up. And then at night, they would call me and we would talk. Something magical began to happen. I thought, maybe this is a mission that I have to do.”

Selene Jiménez, a breast cancer survivor, prepares a salad at her home in Ciudad Juárez. Since having a mastectomy in November 2020, Jiménez has dedicated herself to helping low-income women throughout Chihuahua access resources like medication and prosthetic breasts. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Jiménez had found her calling. After her own mastectomy in November 2020, she began to look for new outlets to help other cancer patients. Part of her outreach involves advocacy for preventative and early-detection measures such as self-exams and regular checkups, especially during Breast Awareness Month in October.

“Many women feel bad because at the moment that one of their breasts is taken away, they feel less like a woman. They become depressed. But I was very proud of what I had done,” Jiménez recalled thinking on the day she left the hospital after her surgery. “There are still so many things I have left to do.”

She discovered that hundreds of women in Chihuahua have been living for years without a prosthesis after their mastectomies. That’s despite the availability of free prostheses through charitable organizations like Club Rotario, ONAMICAN and Aprocancer. However, limited outreach and lack of information about the services in the community means that cancer patients have only rarely taken advantage of these resources.

Jiménez set out to change that.

She created a Facebook page to reach audiences beyond her WhatsApp group and word spread. Jiménez was initially shocked at the number of women in need.

“I began to make a campaign so that women could find out that they could have access to a prosthesis without any cost. I realized it was like opening an ant hill, and I thought, ‘Where are (all these women) coming from?’” she said. “And so many women would tell me things like, ‘It’s been 10 years since they did my surgery and I don’t know where I can get a prosthesis.’”

Many of the women from smaller towns in Chihuahua who contacted Jiménez told her that for years they have had to choose between saving money to travel to their oncology appointments in Chihuahua City or Juárez or saving money to buy a prosthesis.

Jiménez expanded her campaign to place announcements on the radio in her hometown, which is coincidentally named Ciudad Jiménez, a three-hour drive south of Chihuahua City. Volunteers helped distribute fliers and hang banners announcing the availability of prosthetic breasts.

Within two weeks, she had signed up 50 women to receive prostheses from the Club Rotario Juárez Frontera. She carried out a similar campaign in Juárez and, since last spring, has helped approximately 200 women in Juárez and Ciudad Jiménez complete an application and receive a prosthesis.

Prosthetic breasts are important for physical, emotional and cosmetic reasons. Physically, losing one breast can negatively affect a woman’s balance and posture, leading to long-term back alignment issues because of the missing weight. A properly fitted and weighted prosthesis can mitigate the impact on the woman’s physical health.

Emotionally, losing a breast can often impact a woman’s sense of identity and self. 

“They take away part of your femininity,” Jiménez said. “It is hard to look at yourself in the mirror and to see yourself differently and to think, ‘They took part of my body.’ It’s hard to be able to accept yourself. In the end, it is a mutilation. It’s hard to be able to keep yourself emotionally well and to feel sure of yourself as a woman and as a person.”

Selene Jiménez, who had a mastectomy in November 2020, underscores the importance of prostheses for women’s physical and emotional health and decries the lack of information and resources available for low-income cancer patients. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Jiménez said that she tries to minimize the cosmetic aspect of having a prosthesis, but the issue is also tied to self-esteem.

“There are moments when I also complain, when I say ‘Why?’ I just want to be able to use a certain blouse. Or, I see other women with large breasts and I think, ‘Why not me?’” she laughed. “And now, using my prosthesis, yes, it gives me some confidence, but it’s still not part of my body.”

Jiménez is deeply affected by the women who have reached out for help.

“There are women who were using the little pads that come in powder compacts. Or they were using cloth, or stuffing from a pillow, and they were making prostheses out of that. So just imagine. They do not even help balance the weight,” she said. “So it was very sad to learn that, and that there is no help from the government.” 

She hopes to put special focus on smaller cities and towns like Ciudad Jiménez, Delicias and Parral, where services and resources are even more scarce than in large cities like Chihuahua and Juárez. Besides helping women sign up for prostheses, she has become a sort of central meeting point between people in need and people with items to donate.

“People come to me and say, ‘Look, I have this prosthesis,’ or ‘Look, I have these wigs, these turbans,’ and so we get them to the people (who need them). And not only that, but they also give me colostomy bags for people who have other types of cancer, or they donate medication,” she said. “We are also doing activities like selling hamburgers or tacos to help people who need money to pay for their medication. It mortifies me to think how many women are suffering from this sickness because of lack of money or lack of medication.” 

Jiménez’s oncologist told her she was in remission as of last October, but she knows not to take anything for granted.

“It is a never-ending fight. We don’t know if at any moment this could come back. So the only thing left for us to do is to keep going forward and to live and to do something good for the people that are going through the same thing that I went through.”

To contact Jiménez for support or to offer donations, visit her Facebook page.

Cover photo: Selene Jiménez, who had a mastectomy in November 2020, describes her ongoing efforts to connect breast cancer survivors with resources like prosthetic breasts. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at UTEP and a freelance photojournalist in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. She specializes in photography as a tool to explore insecurity,...