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VMHS Principal battled breast cancer, 23-year survivor

20131004 VMHS-principal-Leticia-PenaMISSION—At 29 years old, Leticia Peña was leading a happy life. She had just given birth to her third child and was enjoying time with her husband.

But after delivery Peña noticed a lump in her breast. Multiple doctors told her she had nothing to fear.

Her family’s genetics proved otherwise.

“I’m a 23-year cancer survivor,” Peña said. “My journey with cancer actually began when I was a senior in high school. My dad’s sister died of breast cancer, and my mom was diagnosed shortly after.”

Peña added her father’s other sister is a survivor of breast cancer, while her mom found herself with a second attack of cancer on her other breast.

Usually breast cancer is found in women over the age of 40, once the menopausal cycle has begun, according to Peña. She added her husband pushed her to get tested after finding a lump at a young age.

“I struggled. I had to take ownership of my own health; I had to be pushy,” Peña said. “They found Stage 2 cancer in my lymph nodes … they were in shock. We ended up going to the Diagnostic Clinic of Houston, I had a team of doctors who took care of me.”

After 14 days of soul searching, at 29, Peña said she made the choice to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstructive surgery, though doctors said there was only a 30 percent chance of living in the first year-post surgery.

At a Stage 2 level of cancer, Peña explained the disease is very aggressive and called for strong medication. Doctors warned Peña the 12 rounds of chemotherapy she would receive over six months would be debilitating, and cause her to lose her hair.

“When they told me I needed to buy a wig, I tried them on and was laughing hysterically,” Peña said. “ I didn’t buy one. I said I’m not going to lose my hair … and I didn’t. That was the first case they had ever seen. I was very fortunate.”

Soon after Peña’s chemo treatment, an aunt from her mother’s side was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and did not survive. Peña said she voiced concern to her doctor and found herself receiving gene therapy, an experimental treatment that uses genes to treat or prevent disease.

Through gene therapy, Peña was found to be a carrier of BRCA 1, the mutated gene that can cause ovarian cancer.

“I found out that the gene comes from my mother’s side,” Peña said. “I was positive, and I got my ovaries removed. I also decided to inform my sisters … and my first cousins to get tested.”

Having faced more scenarios involving cancer in 10 years than most see in a lifetime, Peña said she just sees these issues as bumps in the road. She said if she let the fear take over, it would have prevented her from saving her own life.

“I’ve always had a positive outlook, my mom said I was born with a smile on my face,” Peña said. “My experiences, they are little hurdles that you just have to jump over and move forward. I enjoy making a difference in people’s lives and helping others.”

Currently, Peña has taken on the responsibility of assisting other women battling cancer through the Mission Regional Medical Center MissionPink program. Registration for the fifth annual MissionPink Walk/Run for Breast Cancer Awareness is scheduled for Saturday at 6:30 a.m. Peña has participated in the run/walk for the last three years.

As the Veterans Memorial High School principal with Mission Consolidated Independent School District, Peña said she likes to open the doors of communication about her life when school begins.

“I do that on a personal level. At the beginning of every school year I share my story with my staff, I want them to know who I am,” Peña said. “All of us have women in our lives … especially in this area, we have seen so much breast cancer. If you are very open about experiences and recovery, that is how we help others.”

Peña said she also greatly enjoys her job and the students from her campus bring a lot of joy to her life. When asked how she finds strength to overcome all of the obstacles she has faced, she explained her faith and her family have been her priorities.

“Now, I’m enjoying my parents who are 80 and 85 years old, I’m enjoying my first grandchild,” Peña said. “I love participating in the breast cancer awareness campaign, and I love my family, spending time with them.”

The cancer survivor says she knows now that being diagnosed with breast cancer is a struggle, but she realized it was tougher for her family to watch her battle with the disease. Routine is what has kept her spirit intact.

“I wanted to make sure that I was focusing my efforts on my life and helping others, I needed that normalcy and that sense of control,” Peña said. “Of course I had a lot of support from my loved ones, immediate family, colleagues and my students. You just need to know it’s okay to allow them to help you if you need help.”

Peña said she commends the efforts from MRMC MissionPink for working with women and assisting them with information and checkups. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds are used to provide free digital screening mammograms to uninsured women over the age of 40.

The remaining funds raised at the MissionPink 5K will be used to support the MRMC Breast Care Center, by providing ongoing direct services to local women.

For more information on how to receive annual checkups, breast cancer awareness and the MissionPink efforts, call 323-1150 or send an email to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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