This post is the second in a two-part series about breast cancer awareness. Read part one here.
I’m Irma Garcia and this is my story.
I was born in Mexico, in a small town near Guadalajara City. I’m the oldest of nine kids, born to my parents, Max and Emilia. Because our economy, I had to start working at the age of nine and drop out of school.
Coming from a lower-income family and with the education we had, we thought we just needed to go to the doctor when we were really sick. We didn’t know about serious illness or health education, or that we needed to have physical exams – at least, that was my knowledge. I knew people die from car accidents and heart attacks, but the word cancer was not in my vocabulary, or in my life.
We did not go to see a doctor for three reasons:
- Because we didn’t have money.
- Because of our poor health education; we used home remedies.
- Because it was embarrassing to have doctors examine you, especially if you were a woman. Just the thought of being seen by a doctor was already scary.
Those were our thoughts and our beliefs. Because of this, I had my first Pap smear at the age of 30 and, sadly, I had my first mammogram at the age of 45. I found out I had cancer.
It was early ‘70s when I first heard the word “cancer.” To me, it was like a pandemic illness, since all of the sudden it was everywhere. People we knew had been diagnosed with it, and a few months later they died. Cancer was the big topic of the day.
At first, I heard that cancer had no cure. We knew so little or nothing about this. It was only scary rumors we heard, and nobody wanted to get cancer, but it showed up silently. I heard that the only people that were able to survive were the rich. Treatment for cancer was very expensive, and lower-income people had no hope because they could not afford the expenses of the treatment.
My greatest joy arrived when I had my first and only child: Luis. He was everything to me, and as a single mom my mission was to be there for him until I saw him grow, get married, and have kids, and I became a grandma. Those were my dreams – dreams that I could never achieve.
It was 1978 when our family got hit by cancer. My first cousin Lucy Lopez was diagnosed with breast cancer.
During this process we learned that the way to survive was to have a mastectomy. Since the technology and the research were limited, that was the best solution for my cousin. She was successfully treated. We all were so happy that the treatment worked for her and that she had the resources to have the treatment done, since she was living in Seattle, WA. We thought about how blessed she was.
I was working and studying at the same time, and being a mom wasn’t easy. I completed my studies and I became a nurse. Working and seeing my little boy grow was my joy. Everything was great until December of 1986.
I felt a bump on my breast. Fear and sadness surrounded my life, especially after my cousin’s experience. I didn’t wanted to go through that process. Not me! Why me? How does this happen? What was I going to do if it was cancer? I remember I used to pray to God every day, asking him for me to not get cancer. I just didn’t want to think about it, because I had a little boy who needed me to be healthy.
My family supported me and advised me to go to the doctor and have a breast exam. At first I didn’t want to do it. I was so afraid! I didn’t want to find out what it was, but at the other end I knew I had to do this – not only for me, but for my son.
I decided to go to the doctor and he told me I needed to have a biopsy done, ASAP. Money was the biggest problem I was facing. How I was going to pay for the procedure? My family helped me and after a month I had the procedure done.
The results were given to me a week after, and I heard what I didn’t wanted to hear: “Mrs. Irma, it is cancer.” Oh, God! No, please! No! I was shocked and sad.
Radiation, chemotherapy and a mastectomy were my only options if I were to survive. My doctor offered me a treatment with a medication that was new, and apparently it was working while it was combined with the radiation and chemotherapy. This treatment was aggressive, but it was necessary to avoid the mastectomy procedure, and it was being offered by a research team at a much lower cost. I accepted – I felt like a lab rat, but it was my only option. I had no other choice but to go through this process to save my life.
Within a year, in 1987, the cancer spread all over my body, giving me no chance to survive. It was tough, because the treatment had been aggressive, and it had left me without strength and the ability to physically move or talk. I couldn’t say to my son how much I loved him anymore and how important he was to me. I couldn’t hold him at night to wish him sweet dreams, and I couldn’t kiss him good bye. How could I explain him what was going to happen? That I was going to die. It was very sad that I have to leave him alone.
Cancer took those things away; cancer cut off my dreams and my chances to see my kid grow. Sadly, on September 19, 1987, I lost the battle against cancer, leaving behind my 11-year-old boy.
If I were alive, I would love to kiss and hug my son! If I were alive I would love to thank my family, my mom and my dad, my brothers and sisters for all their support and for how they suffered along with me.
If I were alive, I would have to congratulate all the doctors, nurses, clinical staff, nonprofit organizations, and the cancer research teams out there – not only the well-known medical staff, but the ones that are struggling in third-world countries without technology and without money to save lives. Those are the greatest heroes, who live the daily battles against cancer despite their lower incomes.
If I were alive, I would tell you: “Do not give up! One day cancer will stop killing people.” If I were alive, I would let the world know that cancer treatment should be a right for every human being. No one should die because they do not have the resources, the treatment, the equipment, the medications, or the money!
If you read this, offer a moment of silence for all of those who have died, like me, because of cancer. Even though we lost the battle against cancer, we are not only part of the statistics but we are the warriors, we are the heroes, we now are the angels.
We have become a part of history and of research, so that others may survive this illness.
There are still many things to achieve against cancer, many goals to reach, and many cancer victims we may lose; but one thing for sure will never die: our beloved memory in your heart!
In loving memory of Irma Garcia Lara and all of those who have lost their battle against cancer.
Karly Garcia has been the Latina outreach specialist for YWCA Seattle-King County-Snohomish County Women’s Health Outreach program for the last 3 years.