Isabel E. Villar: A Meaningful Life
It would be an understatement to say that Isabel E. Villar has lived a meaningful life.
In 1966, she came to the United States from Cuba with her family—"with the clothes on my back and a suitcase full of dreams." Then a teenager, Isabel quickly became involved in her new town of White Plains, New York.
Fast forward 50 years to the present and find Isabel putting her three master's degrees (in languages, teaching, and counseling) to good use as founder and director of El Centro Hispano, a community center that helps Hispanic men and women in the area find jobs, education, and access to health care.
When the vivacious Isabel was diagnosed with ovarian cancer during a routine exam in the spring of 2008, it came as a tremendous shock.
"Two weeks before I had been swimming in the Dominican Republic with my family—and then my life changed," she recalls.
After she asked a friend to find the New York hospital that offered the best treatment for ovarian cancer, Isabel fell under the care of a renowned gynecologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), Dr. David Spriggs.
After surgery, she began a regimen of powerful chemotherapy. Finding these treatments very difficult, she started asking an age-old question: "Why me?"
Looking back on that hard time, she reflects, "I'd spent my entire life helping people, so I kept wondering why I had been chosen to go through this."
I'm here because of Memorial Sloan Kettering.—Isabel E. Villar
Isabel found her answer by doing what she had done her whole life: She began counseling men and women who also faced a cancer diagnosis, offering both emotional and practical support. Her contribution was palpable and did not go unnoticed. In her honor, El Centro Hispano's board started a fund to help others in the community pay for extra costs associated with their hospital visits.
Because she, herself, was diagnosed without symptoms, Isabel encourages others to keep up with their yearly gynecologic screenings.
"I am an advocate for people to be aware of their bodies—especially women—because you have to know what you're dealing with," she says.
Her role at El Centro Hispano puts her in a unique position to help others find the best treatment for their disease, as this undertaking sometimes intimidates individuals with limited English.
Throughout her treatment, she never stopped working, as she found El Centro Hispano to be her therapeutic outlet.
"To be there was a way to forget about myself and concentrate on the problems other people have. And my work here—which is also my passion—has given me the hope and motivation to continue what I'm doing."
Very aware of life's fragility, Isabel continues to live her own life to the fullest. A world-traveler, she plans to visit her 93rd country this spring when she attends a festival in Valencia, Spain, the town recognized as the birthplace of the seafood soup paella. And she is very active at her parish, where she enjoys playing the piano and singing—leading the Hispanic choir for 50 years.
Grateful to MSK and her medical team, Isabel says, "I'm here because of Memorial Sloan Kettering."
As a way of expressing her deepest thanks, she began making regular contributions to MSK and decided to include the cancer center in her estate plan.
"Dr. Spriggs has been my inspiration. I know that it's a battle, but I am a person of faith, and this is a challenge that we all face together," she says.
Memorial Sloan Kettering gratefully acknowledges her visionary commitment to the Center's future and recognizes her as a member of the Cullum Society.
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