Stronger Than Ever Before
“I don’t want you to go through this. It’s the worst thing ever,” Sonia told her daughter, Claudia. “We’ll get through it. Me and you will have each other.”
It was August 4, 2016, when Claudia received a dreadful phone call at work. She walked into an empty room to answer her doctor’s phone call. She already knew what to expect.
“Claudia, I don’t have some great news,” her doctor said.
“It’s cancer,” responded Claudia.
“Yes,” her doctor replied. “We need to start you on chemotherapy asap.”
Claudia, 25 years young, had tears rolling down her cheeks and went home early.
“Mom, I have cancer,” Claudia phoned Sonia. Just two weeks earlier, Sonia was diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the second time.
At age 18, Claudia was diagnosed with having the BRCA gene mutation. According to the National Cancer Institute, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins. These proteins help repair damaged DNA to ensure the stability of the cell’s genetic material. When either of these genes is mutated, or altered, cells are more likely to develop additional genetic alterations that can lead to ovarian and breast cancer.
“My aunt was diagnosed with it. It runs in my family. So then when my mom got diagnosed with cancer, [the doctors] were like, ‘we need to test your daughter,’” said Claudia.
Claudia recalled swirling mouthwash along her cheeks for a minute and spitting it out into a tube, for a cheek cell sample. This is one of the BRCA gene testing procedures. The other way is through a blood sample. The cheek cell sample is then shipped off to the laboratory. About two weeks later, Claudia got the results.
“Ever since I was 18, every six months, I had to see high risk cancer doctors for my ovaries and for my breast. 2 different sets of doctors every six months,” Claudia said. “I was 91 percent likely to get breast cancer and I’m 84 percent likely to get ovarian cancer.”
The doctors recommended Claudia receive her first mammogram and MRI at the age of 25.
“The MRI was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done. You’re on your knees. You’re at this weird angle. There’s a steel bar between your boobs and two holes cut out for your breast to be in. All your weight is on this steel bar and you can’t move for 15 minutes,” recalled Claudia. “Once that machine started going, it was like I was being electrocuted.”
Once the nurses saw Claudia in tears, they stopped the test to check on her, but encouraged her to keep testing. Claudia continued in tears as she kept still. Right after the MRI, she received a mammogram, and both tests showed something in her right breast. The doctors immediately had Claudia undergo an ultrasound.
“When she pressed on my right [breast], I was like, ‘ow,’” Claudia recalled.
As the nurse pressed over her right breast again, Claudia turned her head around to see the screen and saw this black mass inside of her. She knew it was cancer, but the nurse refused to diagnose it. The nurse instead retrieved the doctor, who ordered a biopsy to be done at that moment.
“I was crying because they had cut me open and took out a small piece and stitched me back together. I was totally conscious for this,” recalled Claudia.
“It could be cancer or it could be a cyst. Since you’re really young, it could be really dense breast tissue. It could be a multitude of things, so don’t think like that right now. Once the pathology reports get back, we’ll let you know,” the doctor told Claudia.
Two weeks later, Claudia received the news from her doctor and had to quickly make some life-altering decisions. She was diagnosed with stage 1 grade 3 breast cancer.
Cancer is categorized by stages one through four and grades one through three. Stage one being the least progressive and four being the most advanced stage. Grade one meaning the cancer is growing at a slow rate and four being the cancer is growing at a fast rate. More Info Here
Since Claudia’s cancer was grade three, she needed to begin chemotherapy right away in order to prevent the cancer from spreading.
“Because chemo does so much damage to your ovaries, you may not be able to have kids,” her doctor continued- just moments after informing Claudia about her cancer.
Claudia, who already had names picked out for her future children, broke down into tears at thought of being childless.
“You need to make a decision if you want to harvest your eggs,” her doctor said. “We would need to start that procedure asap before you start chemo.”
The average cost of the procedure to harvest eggs is $10,000, which typically includes the procedure and medications. To freeze and store the eggs is an additional cost of roughly $500 a year. Then to thaw out and fertilize eggs is another $5,000 every time you decide to thaw out eggs.
“We’ll find the money,” her family supported her.
That weekend, Claudia went to church for the first time in years.
“After my mom was diagnosed with cancer the first time, I was so angry at God. I was like, how could you do this to my mom? My mom who doesn’t smoke, who doesn’t drink, who is a single mother- a bad ass. How dare you do this to her!” Claudia reminisced with tears in her eyes. “I had a lot of anger in my heart.”
She arrived early to church and prayed about whether or not to harvest her eggs. She prayed for a sign.
As soon as Claudia said her Amen and looked up, a beautiful and very pregnant woman was standing right in front of her.
“I couldn’t justify taking that much money from my family on something that may or may not work,” Claudia decided at that moment. “If I can’t have kids naturally, I’m gonna adopt. I’m still gonna be a mother.”
The next day Claudia called her doctors to inform them that she was ready to begin chemo.
On Friday, Claudia went in for her first chemo session. Her family- aunts, uncles, cousins, mom- went with her for support. Typically, only one person is allowed to attend chemo sessions with the patients, but Claudia’s 12 family members got a special exception.
She sat in a chair in a cold room that smelled like alcohol and chlorine with IVs hooked up to her body as saline flushed out her system and took medication to calm her nausea. Then nurses changed out the IV bags three different times to allow three different types of poison to enter Claudia’s body in hopes of destroying the cancer. Each bag took 30 minutes to an hour to completely empty.
Chemo left her feeling so much pain. Saturday and Sunday, she stayed home all day to sleep. The severe pain prevented her from getting out of bed, so she took off from work on Monday.
“Think of your worst possible period cramps- you know, the knives in your stomach twisting and turning- times a thousand all over your body,” Claudia explained the feeling of chemo. “You just feel it come over your body. It’s burning and then you get really cold and you’re in pain.”
Tuesday, she returned to her full-time job as a Senior Inside Account Executive with an IT company. This routine continued three more times, as she endured a total of four rounds of chemotherapy every three weeks.
“I would put on my bravest face. If I didn’t feel good, I would at least try to look my best. Fake it till you make it.” said Claudia. “At work, I never showed [my frustration or pain]. Thankfully, my job was real supportive of me.”
Claudia went through this experience without her mom physically by her side, since Sonia was also receiving chemotherapy as she fought ovarian cancer, but FaceTime made it seem like they were in the same room.
“She’s always been my best friend, so to go through this with her- it was nice to vent to someone who knew what was going on,” said Claudia.
Sonia gave Claudia advice, such as to stay away from spicy foods, which is so hard for us Mexicanas! All the foods that Claudia loved, such as meats, milk and orange juice, were making her vomit. She literally survived off of fruit, fruit smoothies from Juiceland, yogurt, cereal and almond milk- you know, the foods that our bodies were designed to survive off.
After the second round of chemo, Claudia brushed her hair and clumps began to fall out. Her scalp became so sensitive to touch that even sleeping was painful. It felt like a really bad sunburn. Her goal to keep her long thick dark black hair did not seem appealing anymore.
“Just shave it,” she told her friend. “I can’t deal with it. It hurts to have it. Just shave it.”
As she looked in the mirror, tears filled her eyes.
“It’s ok,” her mom told her. “It’s just hair. It’ll grow back.”
Claudia soon embraced her new look and rocked it.
“I’m not gonna hide my bald head. I’m gonna wear bows every single day and I would just wear little headbands like this,” she said pointing to a black headband with a bow attached to it hugging her beautiful fuzzy head. Little baby hairs covered her head.
Her hands were affected by chemo, as well. Her nails became brittle, her hands were dry, peeling and were uncontrollably itching beneath the skin’s surface. She tore her hands up with all the scratching. Sonia was experiencing the same thing.
“I couldn’t sleep. I had really bad insomnia. I had really bad dreams. Everything was painful and I would just cry because I was so frustrated. I was so tired,” explained Claudia.
The only thing that helped the itching was Zyrtec- a suggestion from one of her doctors. She shared this blissful news with her mother, who was so thankful.
“My mom never complained once during chemo. She’s just a rock. She’s so strong. She’s so positive and she’s loving and nurturing. She’s just a badass and powerful woman. I’m gonna be like my mom,” declared Claudia. And that she has been!
“People would ask me all the time, ‘Do you have cancer?’ Yup, sure do. Ask me whatever you want,” Claudia would say. Strangers would apologize for asking, but Claudia would not be bothered by their questions. “If you’re going to stare, I’d rather you come up to me and ask me what’s going on.”
The only thing that rightfully bothered her was strangers sharing their not so well experiences of cancer.
“One person said, ‘Oh my aunt had cancer… she’s dead.’ Oh thank you for that,” Claudia said sarcastically. “I don’t wanna hear that. That kills my hope. That kills my vibe.”
Claudia was determined to survive and made an effort to maintain a positive and strong mindset throughout her battle with breast cancer. There were a few moments when times got dark, but the darkness never lasted long.
While Claudia was heading to her car from the grocery store, she didn’t have the strength to lift the grocery bag from her basket to her car. As raindrops hit her face, she took out each item one by one from the grocery bag and threw them in her car.
“I got in my car, I’m driving down 35 [major highway in Austin] and there’s traffic. I had a really dark thought, ‘I could just veer off the side of the road or I could just slide into oncoming traffic and let that semi hit me and be done with this. I don’t wanna feel like this,’” she said quavering.
“How fucking selfish would that be- to do that to my family?” she questioned herself-snapping out of the dark thought. “That would kill my mom if I did something like that.”
She was grateful to have friends join her on the couch to watch movies and eat popcorn with her, take her to chemo sessions and rely on for anything. She never felt the need or desire to attend community support groups because her friends and family were always there for her. Plus, she felt the support groups were for older women.
“Any negativity, I cut it out completely. I have this going on. I literally do not the emotional capacity to deal with bullshit,” Claudia said. “Once I did that, my friendships and relationships with family just got tighter and stronger.”
On Dec. 21, after all four rounds of chemotherapy, Claudia’s pathology results came out negative for cancer. The cancer did not spread and was no longer in her body. She immediately posted an update on Facebook that there was no longer cancer in her body.
“How does it feel? You beat cancer,” Sonia asked Claudia.
“What?” Claudia asked confused.
“You beat it. You’re cancer free,” Sonia replied.
At that moment, it hit her that SHE actually beat cancer! They both started crying and called the rest of the family to inform them on the amazing news.
“Oh shit! I’m fucking bad ass,” she thought. Here is a screenshot from a video of Claudia dancing after her last chemo! She's one amazing person!
Because Claudia contains the BRCA gene mutation, she is at a very high risk of having the cancer return. In order to reduce the chance of breast cancer returning to 3 percent, she had a bi-lateral mastectomy- the removal of both breasts.
“So many people don’t know about the BRCA gene. If it runs in your family, go get tested for it,” she encourages everyone. “The only reason why I’m cancer-free now is because we caught it early.”
Even men should get tested for the BRCA gene mutation if it runs in their family. Men are at low-risk of breast cancer, but are at a higher risk for other types of cancers, according to a study published on PMC US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. The mutation can also be passed down to the men's children. So get tested!
Claudia is currently recovering and looking fabulous! Her mother, Sonia, continues the battle against ovarian cancer. Her doctors said it is terminal and will continue to reoccur. Claudia hopes for longer periods of remissions for her mother.
“I always knew I was a strong independent woman, but until I went through this- until I went through my really really bad days- and got out of it, I was like, man, this took a lot of strength,” Claudia said after realizing how strong of person she really is.
**Other sources used: