Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in this country, followed a close second by skin cancer. Every year in the United States, more than 231,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, with 40,000 dying from the disease. Two women, Mary Chaves and Abby Santiago, share their survivor stories. They retell their journey from how they found out about their breast cancer, through their treatments and reactions to the medication; while both expressing the value of support they received. Chaves and Santiago have both tried to make a difference and give back to Hair To Share and the American Cancer Society’s Make a Stripe Foundation. They each look back and share their recovery process and advice.
In part one, we followed the beginning of Mary Chaves’ and Abby Santiago’s journey through breast cancer. Each woman found out they had cancer, went to a doctor and learn about their illness. In part two we’ll follow each of their journeys through surgery, treatment, and symptoms.
The Story of Mary Chaves
Mary Chaves a mother of two, a career woman, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. She has been in remission for four years.
Chaves sips on tea in her kitchen while looking out the window as memories come back to her. “After my diagnosis, tests were ordered including invasive techniques at Overlook Hospital. The doctor saw three spots, took a biopsy and decided to do surgery.”
Chaves clears her throat, thinking back to the tough memories, “I also had to do the brca testing, it’s a swab which they send to the lab. It determines whether you’ll pass it on to your children. My tests came back inconclusive,” Chaves explains that years from now
the tests could come back positive or negative. Everyday, the results are in the back of her mind while she thinks if this could possibly be passed onto her children.
Chaves didn’t know of many people who had breast cancer, besides a cousin. “My husband’s client from work said his wife was going through cancer treatment for the second time and offered support through my own ordeal.”
They two talked on the phone for about an hour.
“She advised me to look into a double mastectomy. She had cancer on one side, before two years later spreading to the other side. It was a great learning experience. I was told that only one lymph node was affected by the cancer under my arm. I was between a one and two stage of cancer,” Chaves recalls.
“I decided to have the double maceotcmy and I don’t regret it at all.” Chaves offered a slight smile, “I got everything out of me, it didn’t matter. I had a couple hours worth of surgery.”
Chaves speaks with her hands, “The surgery was a whole process I had tubes and everything, we had to let the breast drain for a couple weeks. I had to do chemo for several months, causing me to be out of work for 60 days at different times.” Chaves explains.
Chaves then underwent Chemo in 2011. Chemo treatment was specially made for each patient in order to treat and kill cancerous cells.
“I would sit there for three hours, once a month. When you go into chemo there’s sections of 4 lounge chairs. You pick your chair, and sometimes you talk to other women who were in your group. The nurses were fantastic. It made a difference when you’re around positive people. You have to give them credit, they’re making patients comfortable for the time they’re with them.”
Recalling her symptoms, Chaves continues, “I was very nauseous and I had a lot of trouble. I was very sick. My platelets were very low so I required a lot of blood and platelet transfusions. Our bodies produce thousands of platelets on a daily basis. I had about 5 or 6 blood transfusions. I was bleeding internally. My skin would get very red, they would be constantly checking my blood count. My numbers were very low.” Chaves breaths deeply, “They couldn’t figure it out. They pumped me with steroids, it wasn’t enough. I just continued to bleed.”
“My oncologist was baffled. They have never had seen this before. My oncologist went through all my transfusions and she found one that had an antibody that was infected. It was given to me during one of the transfusions. I don’t know how it happened. She tested all the blood and it literally saved my life,” she says with such gratitude.
From that moment on, they knew how to treat Chaves, “It was pretty tough because no one knew what was wrong.”
Chaves’ doctor continued to remind her not to worry about the brca testing, which determines if the cancer is passed onto children. “The results sit on the shelf until they find the one other person who has the same mutation as you,” explained the doctor.
“My oncologist also told me I didn’t need radiation. She told me it was my option to meet with a radiologist. My radiologist then told me yes I do need radiation,” Chaves outlines.
In surgery years ago, doctors were required to remove more than they do now in modern procedures.
“You can’t take that chance.” Chaves exclaims, “I went through 8 weeks of radiation every day and I had no effects.“
Now Chaves is taking preventative medication for 5 years. “I still have another year of that,” as she still worries about the brac testing.
“In the end, I needed to do more testing for my daughter which her doctors required even thought my oncologist said it was not recommended.
Chaves expresses such appreciation because of what the test found, “my daughter’s doctor pushed it. I knew that my surgeon had left the practice so I talked to my oncologist.”
Chaves stressed the importance of brac testing. “My oncologist got back to me in 2012 and the results were completely negative.”
With her mind now at ease Chaves expresses joy. “Its a miracle. I probably cried for a day when I got the letter. It’s really important if anyone has inconclusive results, they can go back to their company and see if they re-tested it.”
The Story of Abby Santiago
Meanwhile Abby Santiago a mother of three, a grandmother and an accounting assistant at Bergen Community College has been in remission for three years.
The doctors did surgery on Santiago followed by chemo. “It wasn’t horrible for me,” she explains. “Chemo was every other week. I’m blessed I didn’t have to go through a lot. My reaction was more tired, with less appetite, aches and pains. It was easier than others. When doing chemo they always had someone there to talk to, to make sure you were comfortable, or if you needed food.”
With family roaming to and from the room, the love can be felt. “After chemo was radiation, it was for 6 weeks 5 days a week.” Santiago looks to the door, “We saw a doctor every month, to get checked, then after the second year it was 3 months, and now at 6 months,” she says with a smile. “After 5 years then I go to once a year.”
In part three well look at Chaves’ and Santiago’s support system. In most cancer treatments having family present makes a huge difference.
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