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‘Cancer is not a sentence’

20110401_0040EDINBURG — January 28, 2011 is etched in my memory. It was the day my mother began chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.

On the drive to the Cancer Center at Renaissance, she held my hand and asked a series of questions: Will it burn? Will I lose my hair immediately? Will I still be the same person? How sick will it make me? Will you be there with me? Is it wrong if I’m scared?

We sat in a waiting room with 50 other patients. They were of all ages and ethnicities. Some appeared hopeful, others looked exhausted. These people fighting cancer on a regular basis, a struggle I had never witnessed and scarcely heard about.

The Cancer Center at Renaissance, located in Edinburg, opened in 2007. Main oncologist and hematologist, Dr. Eugenio Galindo, said their mission is to provide the best treatment and care for cancer patients in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We are bringing the up most, up to date care. Instead of patients going to San Antonio or Houston, we are bringing everything here,” he said. “Patients can stay close to home, family and not have to worry about travel and expense. We want them to feel secure and comfortable as possible.”

The comfort level in the center starts with calmness and politeness from the staff. The chemotherapy area has 24 large plush reclining chairs facing each other on both ends of the walls. Each chair has its own ivy machine and a small chair for family members. Large flat screen TVs hang from the ceiling.

When treatment began for my mother, the nurse attached ivy tubes, which was filled with medication, into my mother’s chest catheter. Treatment often takes several hours.

Mary Ann Escamilla, a 42-year-old breast cancer patient, sat next to her. She shared her experiences and advice as a way to calm my mother’s uneasiness.

“I was never beautiful until I got breast cancer,” said Escamilla as she pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and smiled.

Escamilla is an English lecturer at the University of Texas-Pan American. A year ago, she was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease. At first, the only symptom she had was chest pain that doctors didn’t regard as a precursor to cancer. She had a mammogram where doctors found something suspicious. Doctors then recommended she have a compression chest exam, which was so painful Escamilla almost passed out.

Last April, she had a biopsy and lymphectomy that found microfilaments, which were signs of fast growing cancer cells.

“The surgeon said there was a 24 percent chance it would be cancer and a 80 percent it wouldn’t be,” she said. “But I’ve always been an overachiever, so I knew I was going to be in the ‘yes’ percentile.”

Escamilla was first in denial before everything became about dying.

“I just wanted to hurry and get the surgery, start the chemo and not think about it. I didn’t want to become an advocate or ‘think pink,’” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m more than my cancer,’ which is kind of true. Being an essayist, I didn’t want to become a walking cliché.”

Since then, Escamilla has undergone Herceptin, a chemotherapy treatment, every Friday. She also had a full mastectomy after four little tumors were found. One tumor was 1.4 mm away from her chest wall, which required her to receive daily radiation to prevent a return.

Not wanting her family to feel there was no hope in sight, Escamilla said she remains positive.

“One thing I told them was to not look at me with pity,” she said.

Escamilla’s mother has been her primary helper and supporter. Even though her mother has an injured knee she has been by Escamilla’s side through surgeries, doctor visits and treatments.

“It would have been harder if she hadn’t been there,” she said as she fought back tears. “Though I wish my family wouldn’t worry, it feels good to have that support.”

Escamilla has chronicled her battle through memoirs. She’s also going to use her experience as a thesis for her masters in fine arts in creative writing. Writing is her cathartic way to combat cancer.

Additionally, she’s working on starting a writer’s workshop to help other patients find relief from their struggle. She is looking into partnering with the cancer center or the McAllen Public Library.

“The public doesn’t realize how isolating it can be. I’ve had people stare at me at grocery stores, look at my missing hair or down to my chest,” she said. “It’s hurtful and sometimes you need somewhere to put it all down.”

Evelyn K. Hughes, 71, who has skin cancer, agreed with Escamilla on dealing with strangers.

“Anyone that hasn’t dealt with cancer themselves or with their family, has no idea how time consuming and isolating it is,” said Hughes. “It takes over your whole life.”

Joe Hughes, Evelyn’s husband of 52 years, has been one of her main supporters.

“You spend a lot of time in chairs,” he said as he tucked his wife’s legs into a blanket. “But, it’s important to be there for them and say lots of prayer.”

Hughes noticed a spot appear on her chest last March, but she didn’t think it was anything to worry about. However, when she returned from summer vacation months later, the spot had grown to the size of quarter. She saw a dermatologist who confirmed she had cancer.

“The cancer came out, instead of going in and was easier to deal with,” she said. “I had a biopsy and after the first chemo treatment it started going away…The most difficult thing about chemo is when you start feeling well again, it’s time for another session.”

Priscilla Aguirre, 29, has to balance her fight with leukemia and being a mother of two. She was diagnosed with leukemia when she was just 12 years old. After four years of treatment, Aguirre was cleared. However, two years ago, the return of low levels of red blood cells had her re-start treatment for leukemia.

“As a child I didn’t have a choice to go to treatments because my parents would take me,” she said. “I didn’t want to be here all over again. The only reason I’m here is because I have kids and I don’t want to leave them alone.”

Aguirre said if her father, who died four years ago, was by her side treament would feel easier.

“I never knew how much he carried this weight for me. When I was younger and my hair fell out, he shaved his head to be just like me. He would do anything for me,” she said while crying. “My mom would protect me from everything. My dad tried to make me feel normal.”

Today, her supporters include her daughters, mother and husband of six years, Antonio Aguirre.

At first, the treatments and side effects came as a shock to Antonio.

“It’s a tough thing to swallow, walking in for the first time seeing all these people,” he said. “We are used to complaining about the small things and you come here and it changes your perspective on life. She’s really strong and she never gives up.”

Aguirre said what helps her stay strong is faith.

“The other night I couldn’t sleep, it was just awful. I began to pray and a verse came to me and I kept saying it over and over ‘til I fell asleep,” she said. “God reminded me ‘I’m here and you’re not alone.’”

The struggle may be difficult, but patients haven’t lost hope. The support and advice from others around us made the treatment process fly by.

My mother’s ivy machine beeped and the nurse came to unplug her after three hours of having medication pumped into her bloodstream. My mother smiled at me. On the outside she looked the same, but inside she would be feeling different. It was the start of a long road, but with the support from other patients, we found optimism.

“Cancer is not a sentence,” Aguirre said. “We have hope and people out there should have hope, too. We’re not alone. One way or another we have each other.”

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