Mom, advocate, go-getter
ABOUT VERONICA, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- My parents were both diplomats, so we moved every two years. I realized that these experiences allowed me to adapt easily to change.
- I’m proud of the example I’ve set for my daughters, and I’m happy to have seen how the sacrifices we made as a family were worth it.
- I value the little things, and try to make a difference helping other people whenever I can.
Metastatic breast cancer has not been easy, and I know there will be challenges still to come. But I believe in using your suffering as a source of great strength. Turning pain into beauty and happiness takes time and the support of the people you love.
I was born in Venezuela. My parents were both diplomats, so we moved around every two years. As a child, constantly moving seemed like the worst thing in the world, but as time passed, I realized that these experiences allowed me to adapt easily to change—and to see change as an opportunity to grow and learn.
My parents decided to settle in Guatemala in the 1970s. There, I met my husband. My husband is my rock, and together we have two beautiful daughters. The eldest is 26 and the youngest is 13.
My First Diagnosis
We were still living in Guatemala when I got my first breast cancer diagnosis. I had gone to my yearly checkup with my OB-GYN. I had suffered from cysts in my breasts in the past, and during this checkup, I had three that were large and painful. My doctor advised removing them. Since they were so large, we’d have to bring in a plastic surgeon to do the operation. Reluctantly, I agreed.
When the plastic surgeon and my doctor opened me up for the operation, they found a little black thing the size of a nail head underneath one of the cysts. They decided to continue the operation and explore both breasts. I tested positive for infiltrating ductal carcinoma.
One is never prepared to hear news like this. My husband was devastated and worried but composed. We decided not to tell our youngest daughter because she was only eight. My eldest daughter was coming home from university, so I shared the news with her. She was shocked and scared, but she tried to keep it together for her little sister.
My doctors strongly suggested an immediate radical mastectomy. We scheduled it after Mother’s Day so I could prepare emotionally and spend time with my family. This procedure was hard to accept, but I tried not to let my mind play tricks on me. A person is more than just a face or a body; a breast does not make me who I am. When I told my little one that Mommy would have one of her breasts removed, she turned to me and with a terrified face, asked, “Why, Mommy?” I told her, “Well, because my breast is sick. Don’t worry. Mommy will get a new one.” “That’s even worse! You will get a plastic one!” My daughter’s answer filled me with laughter! This was just what I needed.
After my mastectomy and the removal of 14 lymph nodes, I waited for the results of the biopsy on the lymph nodes. Waiting was one of the worst parts of the journey; it’s a real test of your faith and conviction. Fortunately, my test results showed that all my lymph nodes were clean, and I didn’t have to take any chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
In 2014, my husband and I decided to migrate to the U.S. with our youngest daughter. Sometime later, after we had settled into our new home, I made an appointment with a primary care physician for a regular checkup. During the checkup, I mentioned a hard, little lump I had on the same side that I’d had the mastectomy. I wasn’t worried about it because my earlier tests were clean, but my PCP did not want to take any chances and ordered a mammogram and breast ultrasound. Unfortunately, the results came back irregular, and he ordered a biopsy. When I went in for the biopsy, the radiologist told me I’d need some more tests, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I made him tell me what he was seeing: He thought it was metastatic breast cancer that had spread to my chest cavity.
Facing A New Diagnosis
I was shocked, and for the first time, I really had to consider the possibility of dying. Not as a “one day” concept, but something much closer. My husband had come with me that day; I wondered if I should keep this to myself until I got through the rest of the tests. But when I saw him after talking to the radiologist, I just started crying and had to tell him. He said, “We’re going to get through it,” and we started the journey again.
The biopsy came back positive, and I was officially diagnosed with HR+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer. Once again, I went through the emotional roller coaster, but I collected my thoughts, controlled my fears, and took charge. My PCP referred me to my current oncologist, who also referred me to a surgical oncologist for genetic testing. My oncologist told me he was going to do everything he could.
I decided to wait to tell my family that the cancer was back until we had a treatment plan in place—I didn’t want them to ask questions I didn’t have answers for yet. Because surgery was not an option for me, my oncologist said he wanted me to try a first-line oral medication for postmenopausal women with HR+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer called IBRANCE, taken in combination with letrozole, which is an aromatase inhibitor. He told me about the possible serious and common side effects, including low white blood cell counts and fatigue. I also did a little reading on my own—but I trusted my doctor, so I agreed with what he suggested.
After I began on IBRANCE, I did have some serious and common side effects, including a low white blood cell count, painful joints, and hair thinning, and sometimes I felt sweaty and flushed. I talked to my oncologist about these, and he continued to monitor me. Other patients might experience other side effects, including infections or nausea. I am no longer taking IBRANCE with letrozole and am now receiving a different treatment.
Finding My Path
Once we had a plan in place, we talked to our family. This time, I told my younger daughter. When she realized that we hadn’t told her about my first diagnosis, she was very angry. It took a while for her to come to peace with that, and I did wonder if I’d made the right decision to tell her. But you can’t do “what ifs.” All I could do was show both of my daughters that their mother is a fighter, and give them an example to live up to.
My experience with mBC has shown me that life is available for a limited time only. I wake up every morning and thank God for being alive. I value the little things and try to make a difference helping other people whenever I can.
I’m proud of the example I’ve set for my daughters, and I’m happy to have seen how the sacrifices we made as a family were worth it—my eldest just got her master’s degree and has come home to help run the family business, and my youngest is growing into a bright and beautiful young woman. We’re continuing to make memories together as a family. It hasn’t always been easy, but cancer has made me realize the beauty and value of little things, which in the end are really the big things.