Inspiring Latina: Breast Cancer Survivor Marisol Rodriguez

Inspiring Latina: Breast Cancer Survivor Marisol

Marisol Rodriguez, born and raised in Peru, never thought she'd be diagnosed with breast cancer. But no one ever does. Here, she shares her story of survival and understanding — and it's truly inspirational. Take a read:

Tell us your story: how did you come to find out you had cancer?

I was too busy. I didn’t have time for cancer or anything, so it was very unusual for me to go see a doctor. However, one day I saw a purple dot on one of my breasts. I didn’t think much about it, since no one in my family had a history of breast cancer. In addition, I had breast-fed both of my daughters and had read some years ago that breastfeeding helps prevent breast cancer. So, I thought I was safe.

However, that same week I found myself in a horrific dream, where I woke up in the middle of the night. To this day, it is still so vivid in my memory; I was sweating and very scared. I was touching my head and ears as I looked in a mirror, with only ugly hair coming out above my ears. I looked like an ugly, scary clown. Because I grew up between the mountains and city, many of our spiritual beliefs advise us to pay attention to our dreams and “inner voice.” Here in the US, the equivalent would likely be “follow your gut.”

In any case, the purple dot and terrifying dream prompted me to see a doctor. They didn’t find anything at first, but then one sweet nurse told me “Let’s try an ultrasound on your breast, just to be sure,” to which I replied, “I thought ultrasounds were only for pregnant women? Why, because I’m Latina you think we carry our babies in our breasts?” We both looked at each other and laughed and laughed. At the end of the four-hour session of exams, however, they asked me to schedule another appointment to come back.

What was your immediate reaction?

I remember it was close to the holidays. While I was driving to the hospital, I was planning all the things that I wanted to prepare and give to my children and how best to stretch my budget in order to do so. The nurse directed me to the room where she told me to sit and wait. Then my soon-to-be surgeon came in, and before he even said “hello,” I could see my diagnosis in his sad and compassionate eyes. The words I had never expected were intended for me. Me, have cancer? Marisol, the busy person, mom, professor and teacher, the foreigner? My mind when empty like someone had erased all my thoughts, plans, and ideas. My doctor approached me, anticipating my reaction, and all I could think was “Who will take care of my children?” I was devastated. I felt as though I had betrayed my children for bringing them into the world and now maybe leaving them alone without a mother. I wasn’t afraid of death—I was afraid of not being there for them, and this thought was ripping my heart while I cried with my doctor.

Immediately, another thought struck me, that fact that I didn’t want to tell anyone, at least not yet. I didn’t want to ruin the holidays for them. I didn’t want to give them that news as a present—they are kids, and it wasn’t fair to them. I left the office, and my life was different ever since.

How did you begin to tackle it? What was the biggest hurdle?

The biggest hurdle for me was to accept that I did have cancer. I had heard about cancer before, and saw my mother deal with stomach cancer when I was very young. However, I was not prepared to deal with breast cancer. I was much more worried about how to act, and whether or not to tell my kids. I wanted to find the best way to show courage and hope while at the same time keeping some normalcy in our lives. Eventually, I convinced myself to take it one day at a time, since ultimately I only had so much control over my health, or anything else. I tried my best to embrace it and hope for the best outcome.

What's the biggest misconception about breast cancer or women's health?

“Cancer happens to somebody else, not me.” Moms tend to develop a type of self-preservation mindset. This allows us to fool ourselves, make excuses, or put priorities on things aside from our own health. Since women are often caregivers in the family, they sometimes don’t take time for themselves because they are focused on tending to the family needs. And I learned from The Ford Warriors in Pink ‘Drive the Conversation’ Survey that about a third of women still don’t think about breast health until it is mentioned by their doctor, and this is an issue. I was lucky enough to be guided by my spiritual beliefs and get checked out, but I think this prevalence of breast cancer needs to be at the forefront of women’s health conversations.

How do you feel breast cancer or women's health is seen in the Hispanic community? How would you change it (if you would)?

In my personal opinion, I would say that being diagnosed with breast cancer is still viewed as a failure, embarrassment, or punishment, almost like a taboo. In some cases, some people acted as though you had been touched by the dead, because deep down they are frightened by cancer, too. Others had no idea how to act, or what to say. I think there is a lot of miscommunication that takes place, which also often leads to isolation.

I believe that the Hispanic community must embrace the idea that cancer is like a bully that abuses the victim’s body, mind, and soul. People need to realize that they are not alone in their fight, and that they don’t deserve this abuse. The most effective way to get rid of an abuser or bully is to stand your ground, both individually and as a community working together as one.

How do you feel that this has impacted your life, both negatively and positively?

I prefer to concentrate on positive side. That in itself is a good outcome that resulted from my battle with cancer. I try to only remember the good memories and lessons that I can apply going forward. One example is that I try not to remember the specific date of my first diagnosis. Some of my fellow survivors call this an anniversary, and while I respect this idea, I refuse to print that specific date in my memory. I would save that space to remember the birth of my children or other pleasant events.

In terms of negative impacts, I think after going through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and reconstruction, I barely felt human anymore. I was trying to survive, but I no longer felt normal, and deep down I think I felt incomplete. However, three years later my surgeon suggested I join a team called Pink Phoenix, a paddling Dragon Boat team comprised of breast cancer survivors just like me. Right then and there, he called his wife—a member of the team—and coordinated with her. For that, I will always be grateful.

Being a part of Pink Phoenix gave me a new family, giving me a team of beautiful, smart, sassy, and fearless sisters. They embraced me as their own, and meeting my surgeon and his wife was a blessing in itself. Words can barely describe the benefits of feeling you belong to a group that pushes you to learn, practice, and strive for a better quality of life after being struck by cancer. Through paddling, my weakened muscles became stronger, and so did my confidence and vibrancy of life.

Lastly, cancer gave me the amazing opportunity to be chosen as a 2014 Ford Model of Courage, along with my daughter Ariel. This blessing couldn’t have happened if not for the vision and love of one of my dearest Pink Phoenix sisters Meg Kilmer, who encouraged me to share my journey with cancer.

What are some of the biggest things Latinas need to keep in mind when taking care of themselves?

In general, Latinas are raised in a culture that sacrifices the “self” in order to give, care for and love our families. Latina mothers represent the foundation of Hispanic families. For example, Mother’s Day is one of the most prominent holidays in Latin American countries. While mothers are accustomed to always giving, there are negative sides to giving too much caring for the self. Additionally, while we talk about so much with our daughters, I don’t think we’re talking enough about breast cancer, as The Ford Warriors in Pink ‘Drive the Conversation’ Survey shows us that only 41 percent of mothers report discussing breast cancer with their daughters. It might not be the most cheerful topic, but it’s definitely an important one.

Overall, I think that Latina women should keep in mind that we must first take care of ourselves before we can help others. Latinas need to see the doctor, dentist, counselor, and so on, just like anyone else. It’s important for Latina mothers to find venues to create opportunities to have  conversation about cancer with their daughters and to model and teach them to take care their health first.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Remember Latinas, flores de la canela: “Cancer is ugly, we are beautiful.”

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