Thursday, October 25, 2018

Adversity to Advocacy: A Granddaughter’s Story of Stage 4 Breast Cancer

By Olivia Suárez
Media Relations Coordinator
Texas Medical Association

Editor’s Note: This story is the first of five in a series about the author’s personal experience with metastatic (stage 4) breast cancer. This first story describes her grandmother’s diagnosis, and the subsequent events that prompted the author to take on an advocate role in Washington, D.C., in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. 

Ms. Suárez Goes to Washington

“There it is, ma’am, the National Mall. I’m going to pull you in right here if that’s okay,” my Uber driver, Semir, said.

I turned my head to the left to face the window and saw the Washington Monument, there in its glory, the setting sun illuminating the structure with a goldish hue. To my right stood the U.S. Capitol building. 

I can’t believe I’m here,” I thought to myself.

As I walked closer to the Washington Monument, a wide grin spread over my face.

Oct. 8 marked the first of my three-day adventure in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.  I had a purpose: Within days, I’d be marching to Capitol Hill, demonstrating my newfound political prowess and speaking on behalf of people suffering from a disease I know all too well, one that has shaken my family to its core since December 2016.

Mrs. Estela Shimanek,
the author's grandmother
My grandma, Estela, passed away on Aug. 4, 2018, after an 18-month battle with metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer, commonly known as stage 4 breast cancer, is breast cancer that has spread, or metastasized, to another part of the body. The cancer can spread to the liver, bones, lungs, or brain.

Physicians diagnose nearly 200,000 Americans with breast cancer each year. Six to 10 percent of these diagnoses are metastatic, or stage 4. 

Nearly one in three people with early-stage breast cancer will have their cancer metastasize. When the disease reaches stage 4, it becomes incurable, and the prognosis is usually terminal. 


“Your Grandma Has Cancer”

I remember when my mom broke the news about my grandma’s initial breast cancer diagnosis. It was Dec. 1, 2016. My mom and I talk on the phone most days of the week, so when she called I didn’t think twice; I answered. 

“Hey mom, what’s up?” I said. 

“Hey,” she said. “Are you home?”

“Yes, what’s going on?”

“Are you in your room?”

“Uh oh,” I thought. When my mom asks those specific two questions, it’s usually serious. She said that in October, my grandma (her mother) visited the doctor after experiencing pain her in breast. She said after several tests, doctors found tissue that looked suspicious.

A pause followed, then my mom began to sob. 

“The test came back positive. Your grandma has cancer.”

When I heard those words, I froze. I remember feeling sick before breaking down in tears. 

“What stage?” I asked. 

“We’re not sure yet, but it’s likely stage 3 or 4,” she said. “Either way, it’s aggressive.”

She told me my grandma needed to have more tests, and would probably be seeing oncologists in San Antonio or at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston instead of Harlingen, where she lived.

This isn’t fair,” I thought. “My grandma is only 68. She’s only been retired for two years.”

I prayed that this was just a nightmare, and that soon I’d wake up. 

All Hands on Deck

My grandma moved to my family’s house in San Antonio shortly afterward. Several family members traveled to Houston with her to consult with oncologists at MD Anderson, considered one of the top hospitals in the world for cancer treatment. 

The oncologists there confirmed my grandma’s breast cancer was likely in stage 3 or 4, and the cancer also spread to her lymph nodes, which is part of the immune system. 

From January to August 2017, my grandma underwent chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and extensive rounds of radiation. 

By September, her treatment was complete. My grandma still had to undergo regular scans to monitor the disease, but she had reached a milestone.

“Grandma, I’m just so proud of you,” I told her, tears welling up in my eyes.

“Thank you, mija.1  I’m so happy it’s over. I’m ready to see you all again,” she said. 

[1] A Spanish term of endearment meaning “my girl.”

Little did we know that we weren’t even close to the end of this journey.



Watch for the second part in Olivia’s post on MeAndMyDoctor.com.

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