“I have stage three breast cancer.”
Thiat was the last phone call I was expecting from my older sister, Reyna, as I was enjoying a delicious caramel apple from the street fair at the University of Oregon.
I thought about the times she’d often complained half jokingly about her absurd and at times comical problem with her breasts lactating at random. We had always laughed along with her stories, but I had also always persuaded her to get them checked out.
She had let three years pass since she first noticed abnormalities. By then, she was a 34-year-old restaurant manager in Chicago, living her life vigorously and remaining unaware of the deadly health risks she was facing. It was only after she noticed a large lump under her left nipple that she recognized the extremity of the situation and finally headed to the doctor. What started out as a sunny day in May had turned into everyone’s worst nightmare.
My sister Reyna was adopted from Oaxaca, Mexico and has always had incredibly tough skin. She was always the last person you wanted on your bad side, but the first person you wanted backing you up when you needed it. We knew that Reyna was young enough and strong enough to fight this horrible monster that continues to affect one in 8 women in the U.S., but once we learned it was stage three, we all held our breaths and filled our thoughts with prayers. As a 19-year-old student finishing my first year of college and simultaneously managing a big break-up, I was extremely overwhelmed.
I knew that, regardless of personal issues and final exams, I needed to be there for my big sister, and I was determined to help her through this. An old friend of Reyna’s created a Facebook page where friends and family could follow her fight, calling it “Reyna’s Kickin’ Cancer’s Ass Page”—a perfect way to sum up Reyna’s attitude towards the diagnosis. Here, words of support and constant updates were made that allowed Reyna to have an immediate support system even though she was in Chicago and thousands of miles away from her family on the West Coast.
Reyna’s breast cancer was one of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to our family, but it was also one of the most beautiful things to see how much love and support she had along the way through all of the positive posts on the Facebook page. It began with shirts that everyone would sign wishing her luck and posters or cards of all shapes and sizes flowing in from every part of the country. Some supporters were dear friends, but others were complete strangers who simply wanted to wish her the best in her challenging road to health. One of my favorite gifts that Reyna received during this time was a large pin button she wore that read, “I had chemo today, what’s your excuse?” It was a perfect representation of the fearless and determined attitude that my brave older sister maintained throughout her treatment.
Such sincere positivity helped to encourage my sister daily and put endless smiles on her face even in the face of illness. From her pink designer hospital gown to her non-stop party girl spirit still rocking it with my brother at multiple Chicago Cubs games throughout it all, Reyna was an inspiration to everybody, even the other patients in the hospital
Despite the heavy diagnosis and the time Reyna spent in the hospital, the moment when it hit us just how real this was, was when chemotherapy began. During this time, Reyna was losing her hair, her breasts, her physical strength; she was scared, as anybody would be. She was scared of the outcome, scared of the process and scared of the changes that were happening and would continue to happen to her body daily.
Even so, Reyna’s positive attitude never faltered, though she struggled with having to change her life from the normalcy of working and playing to now dedicating everything to her healing and to her survival. She continued to work for as long as she could, and stayed social whenever she felt up to it; she was convinced that a few margaritas here and there could only be killing more bad germs…plus it made her pain seem a little more bearable. Overall, Reyna felt hopeful. As for me, I just wished I could have been closer to her throughout it all. It wasn’t enough talking on the phone and hearing her try to still laugh it off and assure me that she was fine. I knew she wasn’t fine; how could she be, when she was undergoing treatment that was leaving her nauseous, exhausted, weak and, even if she tried to hide it from me, scared? Though she was brave, there is only so much smiling you can do as you slowly lose your hair, your eyelashes and your appetite.
Even before her cancer diagnosis, my older sister was a huge role model to me, but watching her undergo so much pain—both physically and emotionally—and seeing her smile even after shaving her gorgeous head of hair at such a young age, truly helped me to gain a more appreciative perspective on life. Just because we are young and privileged never means that we can take even one day for granted. The fear of losing a sister, a daughter or a best friend brought all of Reyna’s loved ones closer to her, and she was able to rekindle and strengthen lost friendships along the way. Continuously losing things and in return gaining others was an ongoing theme throughout Reyna’s year-long chemotherapy process. She would lose her work and social life, but would gain the support of an entire community. She would lose her white blood cells, but she would gain a greater appreciation for her life. She would lose her boobies (as she called them), but in the end would eventually have her health back. Most importantly with her health came a million positive stories and unforgettable friends who she met along the way.
The loyalty of Reyna’s friends and family during the process was astounding, and as she became bald, so did many of her male friends! As she also became comfortable with her “new do”—she acquired a large collection of beautiful hats and head wraps to model. This girl could truly take one of the worst circumstances and transform it into a comedy show for us all to laugh at alongside her.
It is now nearing October 2014, and my beautiful big sister has been cancer free for almost two years. She received a bilateral mastectomy, a procedure that removes all breast tissue that could potentially develop cancer, and is something most women who’ve been diagnosed will choose to do in hopes of avoiding future disease. She now is the proud owner of some truly stunning new boobies! She recently moved to California to be with the rest of our family and she still continues to tell her story with a smile on her face and boxing gloves on her hands.
Since Reyna’s experience with breast cancer, I know that I, as well as the women in our lives, have become much more aware of doing self-examinations as well as supporting those battling their own fights all over. My family has participated in various walk for the cure events, played in golf tournaments supporting breast cancer awareness (my mom even has a pink bag and balls) and this past year did a breast cancer snowshoe in honor of my sister. We continue to rock our “We Heart Boobies” bracelets and stickers and will continue to participate in any breast cancer events that can help people like Reyna win their fight. We are lucky to have our Reynie still with us today, and we can all look up to her as a hero. According to Reyna, “CANCER, YOU PICKED THE WRONG B*TCH!”
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