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By Brenda Garza
Austin, Texas, Cancer Survivor
I moved to Detroit, Michigan, newlywed to an engineer, in 2003.
Because we moved during December we didn’t do many outdoor activities or exercise something that we used to do in Mexico all the time. Gabe and I met at a spinning class and we became boyfriend and girlfriend after few dates. We both loved the outdoors.
We were very excited about new opportunity and challenge to live in a new country but we definitely weren’t ready for such long, harsh winters in North America.
But once spring and summer began, we were happy doing outdoor activities like cycling. Michigan has beautiful state parks, with water, hills, hiking trails, biking trails and green vegetation, something we didn’t have in Mexico.
We soon learned to enjoy and embrace a new activity: mountain biking.
‘Started to Feel a Little Different’
About a year and a half later, I started to feel different. I was tired and moody most of the time and I didn’t know why. At the beginning I thought it was because of the move to U.S. and the long winters. I thought that maybe I was feeling homesick and missing the warm weather in Mexico.
One spring day, Gabe and I went for a ride to one of our favorite parks when something happened. I was following Gabe and I hit a rock and my breast hurt. I stopped and told Gabriel that my boob was hurting and he asked me if I had hit my chest with the handlebar to which I replied no.
The pain continued for few days and one day I was watching “El Gordo y La Flaca” at Univision when they said that Adamari Lopez, a Puerto Rican actress, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Something hit me at the moment and I thought … if cancer happens to people like her why this couldn’t happen to me?
And that’s how my journey began.
‘None of the Doctors Believed I Was Sick’
I went to see three different doctors in Michigan at the best hospitals including an OBGYN. Told them about the pain and how I was feeling sad and tired most of the time.
None of the doctors believed I was sick. None asked for further evaluation because I was 29, fit, healthy, and no cancer history in my family. Some doctors ventured to say that I was homesick and that I should visit my family in Mexico more often and even prescribed antidepressants.
Everything they said sounded just right and made sense to me but I was hurting. Yes, I was homesick, but I was also happy to be there with Gabe. We had a good life.
I could feel the pain more often and my mind wouldn’t stop thinking about Adamari Lopez and her cancer diagnosis.
‘Brenda, You Have Cancer’
That’s the moment I decided to talk to my family doctor, a Colombian girl almost my age, who was helping me with my allergies. I told her about my pain and the way I was feeling, we had a better conversation since we both spoke Spanish.
I asked her, begged her, if she would do a mammogram but she couldn’t prescribe it because of my age and no evidence of cancer in my family. But she ordered an ultrasound and two days after the results she prescribed a biopsy due to an “abnormal result.”
Two days after the biopsy, she called me at my cellphone and asked to come to her office. I think Gabriel was traveling because I went alone to the appointment, I can’t remember any more but what I do remember is that I walked into her office and saw piles and piles of papers on her desk.
She asked me to sit down, hold my hand, and told me: “Brenda, usted tiene cancer y es muy agresivo (Brenda, you have cancer and it’s very aggressive).” Then she cried.
With that scene in front of me I thought I was dying. But then she confessed that I was her first patient with cancer. I gave her a hug and said to her, I am going to be fine, just tell me what to do and I will do it. We will get through this together.
Susan, my doctor, had all these piles of papers ready for me. She looked for the best bilingual oncology doctors and surgeons in Detroit just for me. Language will not be a barrier any more.
I started treatment not too long after the news because the cancer was stage 3 and apparently too aggressive. I had a lumpectomy, radio and 3 years of tamoxifen which made me feel like I was 90 years old and my body hurt all the time.
Gabe continued to travel overseas because of work, and my sister Lorena moved to Michigan so I could have some company while he was gone. Distance started to grow between Gabe and I. I was focused on my health and healing process and he was focused on his career.
‘I Knew What was Going On’
Three and half years later, I started to feel pain in my breast again. At this time I wasn’t doing mountain biking because I was afraid of hurting myself. Or maybe I just had bad memories or maybe because Gabe and I weren’t spending time together like before. I don’t know why.
I went to see my surgeon, Roberto, who went to the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, was from Monterrey, and a well-known surgeon in Detroit, and told him about the pain.
He ordered a mammogram and two days later he was calling me at my work. At the moment I heard his voice, I knew what was going on. I just asked him to take out my two breasts this time and not to leave anything behind.
Gabe was working on a 6-month project in Oslo, Norway. He wasn’t here for my double mastectomy.
After my surgery I had chemotherapy and the beginning stages of breast reconstruction.
‘Become a Breast Cancer Awareness Advocate’
During all this craziness, I managed to work, volunteer, become a breast cancer awareness advocate for the Hispanic community in Detroit, get a certification at the University of Michigan as an interpreter, put together teams for cancer races, and raise money—all this with the help of my coworkers and friends.
A few years later, I decided to redo my breast reconstruction because I wasn’t happy with the first one. Gabe was back in the U.S. with a new job and started traveling to South America. I went to few trips with him. But I couldn’t go to one, the one where he met someone else. That’s how our marriage ends.
I moved to Texas one week after divorce and started a new life. I call Texas home because I am so close to my family in Mexico and because I can find breakfast tacos in every corner.
Today I continue to support the cancer community with my work at the National Marrow Donor Program as a Coordinator for Central Texas.
I volunteer for different cancer organizations and share my knowledge with newly diagnosed cancer patients.
I am healthy and fit. I have a dog, Jacinto, which is like my baby. We both travel to Northern Mexico every time we can.
I still love the outdoors and do many activities in my new city, Austin, Texas: bought a new road bike, have a new group of friends, and still have many dreams that I wish all will become true sooner than later.
I’ve learned that nothing lasts forever and that it is our commitment to pursue happiness wherever life takes us to.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of guest blog posts from Breast Friends Forever (BFF) in San Antonio, Texas (64% Latino). BFF is a support group that enables young breast cancer survivors to share stories and experiences, developed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio (the team behind Salud America!) and Susan G. Komen San Antonio. Email BFF or Visit BFF on Facebook. The main image above features Brenda Garza of San Antonio, one of the co-founders of the BFF support group.