It was the holiday season - December 28, 2015 - when Maria Vega was in a store and received a call from her doctor who revealed to her that she had breast cancer.“
The C-word. Cancer. And that’s all I remember. Cancer…I left the store and got in my car. I was in the car with my baby and her father—and I said to him, I have cancer. We need to go home now.”
Maria discovered a rash on her right breast around August and about two months passed before deciding to visit with her primary care physician. “I originally just didn't even think about it but the rash just wouldn’t go away.”
After the physicians quickly examined the rash, the response was, “this doesn’t look like a rash or something we can give you a cream for.” The next day Maria received a call from her doctor’s office saying they were going to play it safe and send Maria for a mammogram.
Maria arrived to get screened for her mammogram about a week after her first doctor’s visit.
“So, I go for the mammogram and while I’m there they said, ‘we’re going to do an ultrasound’ and I’m not thinking anything of it. After the ultrasound, one of the specialists comes out and says, ‘we found something there that we need to do a biopsy on.’ She said that it was nothing to worry about and that a lot of women have this process done. I said, well, when is the biopsy? And she said right now.”
Within a few hours, Maria had undergone a mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy. “I started crying. One, because I was by myself and two, because I was like -well, why would I be having all of this? … It was an out of body experience. Here I am, getting all this done and it was just a rash - nothing else.”
All of Maria’s screenings were sent in for testing and she anxiously awaited her results that would be ready the next day. The initial results revealed that Maria had abnormal cells and that she would have to get a lumpectomy where a piece of her breast tissue would be sent in it for more testing.
December 28, 2015.
“Yes, Maria - you need to come in [to the doctor’s office] and we need to talk.” In Maria’s case, there wasn’t an option of just removing the cancer—she would need to have a mastectomy. “I couldn't believe it. I got really depressed. Shut everybody out. Especially, because it was during that Christmas, New Year’s time. I had no time to celebrate. I was very distraught.” In early January, Maria was able to meet with her surgeon. She found out that she was in a premature stage of cancer. “He said, ‘we’re going to remove the breast but I’m going to give you some time to think about what that means and you need to really research this and tell me what you want to do.”
“The day I had the biopsy, mammogram, and ultrasound, my rash went away. I always have said that there was a little angel looking out for me. It was like, I got the rash so that I could get myself checked out. Had I not had the rash, there was no way I would have found out I had cancer—and I think the cancer would have spread and it would’ve been too late.” Maria’s cancer was fairly unusual because there were no high risk factors or family history of breast cancer, so the surgeon decided to have both an MRI and genetic testing done to attempt to figure out where the cancer came from.
Maria worked with both a medical and plastic surgeon and opted to have both breasts removed to prevent having to potentially go through the process a second time and even though the MRI didn’t detect it, Maria also had cancer in her left breast. On February 25, 2016, Maria underwent a 10-hour surgery at Highland Hospital to remove the cancer and reconstruct her breasts.
During her 3 month recovery, Maria focused on the things and people that mattered most in her life, her 18-month old daughter and herself. Reflecting on her journey, Maria knows that she made really good decisions along the way. She also had a great support system that included checking-in texts, calls, cards, and even coworkers who would deliver meals other home every day for a month and a half. I will be forever grateful to my family, friends, and the R.I.T. community for their support during the recovery process. Maria is now living a much more positive life with her daughter and is grateful to be alive.
“My life changed completely. I would work all the time and was giving too much of myself to work or taking care of everybody else. And when cancer happened, it was like I had to stop and dependent on everybody else - which I’m not good at. I learned a lot of lessons such as to remove all the things that were negative in my life and make some healthier choices. While going through the recovery process, I decided to leave a 20-year relationship. It took a lot of courage and I had to make some difficult financial decisions. But, had it not been for cancer, I don’t know how brave I would've been to do that. Today, I live a much more positive life and I am not afraid to take on opportunities. I go to the gym. I’m eating healthier. I’ve lost weight. I am more confident. I feel happier and free. I can dedicate more time to my child. I’m so happy I'm still alive.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
Maria said to me, “Everyone believes in different things, and I believe in God. It was almost like God was telling me along the way you need to stop what you’re doing and focus on the present moment. It was like everything is hitting you in the face and you’re not doing anything to change that. So, here’s another test--maybe this will teach you. It really did and I try to be conscientious of that every day.” What I take from Maria’s story is a personal life lesson and I know that I’m not alone. Very often, we find ourselves always busy and living in cultures of distraction. We tend to forget that life is beautiful and we should enjoy little moments with our children, friends, families, and ourselves. We also should take a hard look at our lives and determine what is permanent and what should only be in your life for a season. Removing negativity from your life is a crucial part of being happy and free. Thank you Maria for inspiring me to focus on the present moments and remove any negativity in my life! I am forever grateful.