Isabel De La Camara has forgotten about the mesothelioma cancer brewing inside her belly.
Her concern for others — and her desire to help them — has overshadowed everything else in her life today.
De La Camara, who lives in Central Florida, has hardly slept since Hurricane Maria ripped through her beloved Puerto Rico last week, carving a horrific path of destruction that left more than 3 million people without adequate food, water and other basic necessities.
Some of her closest friends and family members are among those hit the hardest in San Juan, where she was born and raised, and one day — hopefully not too soon — will be buried, too.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the photos and hear the horror stories I’m hearing right now…just agonizing,” De La Camara told Asbestos.com. “People are suffering. My friends who have helped me through my problems, they need my help now.”
Although she has been in contact with several people living on the island — through Facebook, sparse cellphone coverage or places of worship — she still hasn’t reached others, including an elderly aunt who was living alone in the family home that was flooded.
De La Camara, 49, moved to Florida in 1993, shortly after her father, grandfather, grandmother and best friend all died within a year of each other.
Her attachment to the island, though, never has wavered. She still returns to visit regularly.
“I’m just so stressed about this now. It’s all I can think about. I want to go there so badly and try to help, but I also realize that wouldn’t be the best way for me,” she said. “My problems with mesothelioma don’t matter now, not compared to those who don’t know where their next meal will come from.”
She is spending hours soliciting donations of nonperishable food items, water, batteries, hygiene products and fans, packaging them at her home. She sends them directly to friends and family through FedEx.
De La Camara was diagnosed almost 10 years ago with peritoneal mesothelioma, which is caused by the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers.
She fears her friends and family in Puerto Rico are at risk for asbestos exposure from the natural disaster.
“I also know what the cleanup there will be like and the dangers that are out there,” she said. “People need to be so careful, wear masks and protect themselves. There will be asbestos everywhere, especially around the docks and shipyards. I know that for sure. I’m proof of that.”
De La Camara believes her cancer stems from working as a supervisor at her father’s factory that made and repaired boat propellers, along with other boat motor parts.
Her father died at age 44 from lung cancer, which could have been related to the asbestos dust that still is so prevalent today in those shipyards.
“I still have my good days, and bad days, but I’ll keep fighting,” she said. “I feel a little like a burden now. Everyone here is just kind of waiting for me to die. But when I do, I know where I’m going, and I’m fine with it.”
Camara already has her plot selected at the historic Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in San Juan, where many of Puerto Rico’s most prominent people have been buried, including many of her wealthy family members.
Its oceanfront beauty has made it one of the island’s most famous landmarks and most photographed spots in San Juan.
“I’ve already told my friends here in Florida, they will have to fly to Puerto Rico to bury me,” she said. “That’s where all my ancestors are. That’s where I want my final resting place to be. And I’m excited about that.”
De La Camara already has endured five surgeries related to her cancer, including cytoreduction on her lower intestines, ovaries and pancreas, but she has bounced back every time.
Her children are now 21, 18 and 17, having grown up with cancer in their home, but with a mother who always put others before herself.
Those that know her best are not surprised at her immersion into recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
She previously worked at the Christian Sharing Center in Florida and started her own Change Your Community nonprofit to help the homeless.
A devout Catholic, De La Camara taught theology at the private school where her children attended.
Although she grew up in a financially stable family, helping the poor was always important to her. As a youngster, she used to make dozens of sandwiches at her parents’ home, then walk down the street and distribute them to the less fortunate.
“Everything I’ve gone through [with cancer] is a reason to help others now,” she said. “As a kid, my mother would just shake her head when she saw what I did with those sandwiches. Social work is just in my blood.”
She believes shipping supplies directly to the people who need them the most today avoids some of the chaos that has engulfed the island.
“I’ve had a good life. Mesothelioma won’t change that,” she said. “At this point, it’s about helping others any way we can.”