• Susie Aguilar

I Thought I Was Too Young For Cancer...

Hearing "you have cancer" is a moment in my life I will never forget. At the ripe age of 2 years old, my daughter was clueless to the biggest hurdle I would be challenged with in her young life.

Julie turned 2 & I got my diagnosis in the same month

To be quite honest, since I was so young and as you will hear...obviously in denial, I thought it wasn't a big deal. Maybe it was shock or maybe it was lack of understanding, but when I left my Doctor's office that day, I felt like nothing had changed. I first went to see my Doctor for my usual annual physical and when asked if there was anything I was worried about or had questions about, I casually mentioned "I have this itchy spot on my back that bugs me sometimes." She took a look and found it was a mole I had on my lower back most of my life and over time, it got scabbed and would bleed. 

Her suggestion was to get it biopsied soon, so we scheduled a date and it seemed to be routine. Naturally, I hate needles (and of course, who doesn't fear the Doctor's office?), but as a responsible mom I knew I had to do it. A couple weeks later, we did the biopsy and off to the the lab it went. You know how the Doctors office says "if you don't hear from us, then that means all is clear.  If we call you, we will most likely ask you to come see the Doctor." In my mind, easy peasy, I'm not getting a phone call! RING.RING.Let's schedule that appointment to talk to the Doctor.

Again, I sat there alone (since I assumed it was nothing major) to get my biopsy results. In hindsight, how did I not realize there was some reason they wouldn't tell me over the phone (trust me I asked so I didn't have to go back) because in my head, they weren't going to call! Anyhow, my TWO Doctors came in and said "well, we got your results, and you have melanoma." I think she expected me to start bawling or freak out, but I said "okay, and?" Their facial expressions were a mix of shock and how dumb is this person, which turned into them explaining "So melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer. We have to remove it. We will get you a referral to an oncologist and a surgeon to make a plan." And STILL, I just thought, no biggy!

My next statement is my advice, use it as you please.....DO NOT under any circumstance go home and research what it is they just diagnosed you with! I mean death by internet! If it was up to everything I read, I was going to die the next day....great feeling as a Mom of a 2 year old. Seriously, if you choose to research, then you must take what you read and dissect it for what it's worth. Are you the same age, have the same health issues, what is the exact diagnosis, is this person exaggerating a tad too much, etc. Trust me, I went to reading immediate death to the statistics of how long people with melanoma survive. Seriously, survival rates while I'm in my early 20's??? Wow, guess this is kind of a big deal.

So, another thing is, really do your homework on who you are referred to. Results in hand, I visited two different doctor offices. The first one explained how surgery would be performed to make sure all the cancer was fully removed. Not fun, but okay, I want it gone so I'm game. The second one took a look, reviewed the results, and started setting up instruments to remove it right then and there....excuse me??? In his experience, this was a simple removal, cut it out, patch it up, and BAM you are good. 

Therefore, I offer my second piece of advice, if you ever get that "pit in your stomach" feeling - stick with it! It is there for a reason and I am so thankful I listened to mine that day. I immediately told him he could not cut out my mole and that I was simply there for his opinion - not a procedure. I left and made the choice I was going with Doctor #1 - no doubt in my mind! Guess what....that was the best decision I could have made. Doctor #2 (literally) would not have identified critical lab data by simply cutting it out. Again, listen to your gut!

After what was an expedited approval process, I had surgery in October 2006 to remove my melanoma. Because of where it was at on my lower back, picking up and chasing my toddler as a single momma was not an easy feat. Thank goodness for my Mom, my best friend, and my nurse. 

My Momma, baby girl, and I

While I slowly recuperated, we anticipated hearing the results from surgery. The goal was, remove all the cancer and mission accomplished! What ensued was a series of events I was not prepared for or anticipating….RING.RING. AGAIN! We need to schedule a follow-up with your surgeon.

Okay, I assumed this was standard protocol. He wants to check the incision, remove the massive stitches sticking out of my back, and tell me I’m clear….right? So Mom and I make this huge list of questions, how much longer should I take it easy, healing time, should I do anything else to prevent this going forward, and so on. The surgeon eased into the conversation by making it appear this was a standard visit, ask how I’m feeling, check the healing, and a little small talk. Great, lets wrap it up and I’m out of here. 

He then says, "we received the pathology report and the results are a little different than we expected. The good news is the cancer was all removed, we had to go a bit bigger on the margins (bigger cut then we planned on), but it’s gone. What we determined though is the roots of the mole extended beyond the original biopsy results. What that means is we need to do a Sentinel Node Biopsy to ensure the cancer hasn’t spread elsewhere.” SILENCE….a million thoughts running through my head….what does this mean? Oh wait, he said “biopsy” so they just want to take another little piece. Okay no big deal. He then proceeds to explain I need to schedule a surgery. Wait what? At that moment I think I blanked out, he said a whole lot, I remember seeing his mouth moving but whatever he said was muffled and I sat there in a daze. “So you understand right? Let’s go to the receptionist to schedule your pre-op.”

The drive home couldn’t have been more eerie, pure silence, I had no words and I think my Mom was in as much shock as I was. I think we both expected to just close this chapter after this visit, eliminate cancer and be done. NOPE, that was not in the plans. As I reflect on this moment in my life, I realize just how much this experience was placed in my path for a reason. It was teaching me RESILIENCE. It was a lesson to prepare me for the challenges I would face as a single mom, as a young woman in the corporate world, and as a Latina. Duly noted, thank you for this lesson.

By the time we pulled into the driveway, the amount of tears I shed were countless, I just didn’t understand. I thought I had done the right thing and wondered if this was a punishment. And truly, I don’t know a whole lot about what the Doctor said because I hit MUTE in my head when he said I needed a second surgery. Where would Julie be during surgery, how will I care for her, what do I do about work (I had just promoted to a newer role about a month before my diagnosis), and the flood of emotions raced back. My Mom could see how frantic I was and I think realized I just needed to catch my breath. If there was a moment I needed a little laughter or a reason to smile, it was RIGHT NOW. That wobbly little toddler knew just how to make momma smile (and she still does today). For a fraction of a moment, I got to forget about the appointment I just had.

One of the many ways my girl brings me pure joy

The next day, my Mom took the time to explain to me what I zoned out on during the appointment. They would inject my incision area with a special dye and monitor in which direction the ink would flow - basically it was tracing the path cancer would have taken if it traveled. Once they determine that flow, they cut open the lymph node area it identified. They take a biopsy and see if any of them are HOT - aka cancerous. Of course, you hope that there is no cancer, but at least it doesn’t sound too bad of a procedure. Except, what if the cancer spread I asked myself….then it hit me. My 24 month old baby girl may live a life of not having ANY parent in her life if it spread and I don’t survive this. What if she grows up as an orphan? Thankfully she has my family who adores her, but a life without parents who love you, to raise you, and see you grow up? Kick in the water works! It is fair to say I was a mess. But can you blame me? 

Surgery was expedited, within a couple weeks here we were back at the hospital with my lovely gown on and actually a somewhat funny story now (I don’t think I was feeling too humorous at the moment). Surgeon comes in to check on me and get me thinking positive before surgery! Cool, I like this guy! Nurse comes in to get me all ready, this should be the easy part of the day right?! So my Mom is sitting next to me trying to distract me because I’m again, a baby, when it comes to needles. The nurse is getting it all ready and proceeds to poke my hand (seriously as I write this I’m getting light headed just remembering this….). “Oops, your vein didn’t like that. Okay, I’ll try again.” Nope, it didn’t work a second time. Meanwhile, my Mom who is supposed to be distracting me is staring at my hand in amusement….thanks Mama! 

“Hhhmmm…think I need to try the other hand.” Alright, this is getting interesting. And again, we repeat a couple unsuccessful pokes. OUCH! Now I’m getting all sweaty, anxious, the nerves are at an all time peak, and still no IV! I think she sensed this was not happening (or that I may pass out) and said, I’ll go get another nurse who works with our premies.” Great, that sounds hopeful, she deals with tiny baby veins. Let’s fast forward to several attempts later, a non-successful “numbing shot” (which let me tell, only amplified the pain not dulled it as she promised), meanwhile my Mama is about ready to pass out sitting in the chair watching. She’s not usually squeamish but even she had to turn away because it was getting so brutal. Can you believe we hadn’t even started the surgery yet?! I recall the stories afterwards and boy, everyone now understands why I freak out anytime a needle is mentioned!

Okay, so at this point, hopefully the worst part is over right? They wheel me into the observation area where they will inject the dye and watch me light up like fireworks on this huge screen. Pretty neat that I got to lay there and watch the traveling ink. As I’m watching, I see these polka dots start growing on the monitor, tons of them. Then they keep going and going. After about an hour and a half, I head back to the prep area where my Mom had just seen me turn into a human pin cushion. The surgeon comes in after a few minutes with paperwork in hand (even though I had just signed away my life just before being poked) and says “alright, so after watching, it seems because of where the cancer was, it appears to have done something different than we expected. Normally the flow would go to one area first and we do the biopsy there as we originally talked about. However, in your case (gotta love when they say that - like I’m supposed to be special or something), 3 areas lit up at the same time. The choice is yours, we can pick one of the areas to biopsy or we can do all three.” Trigger the water works again. I could not wrap my head around what he was saying for a brief moment. He let my Mom and I be alone for a little while to calm my nerves and let us talk it through.

When you are faced with a tough decision, you can take the easy road or the road less traveled (the challenging option). We outweighed the pros and cons of each (it’s something I got from my Momma and it has guided me through many of my life decisions) then we sat there in silence waiting for the surgeon to return. I asked him to give me a little more detail and in essence, the risk of only doing one meant that the cancer MAY have traveled to a different spot then the one we choose to biopsy. So do I gamble in hopes we pick the right area to cut open or get self assured by doing all three? Well, as you get to know me, you will learn I’m an over critical thinker and results based woman (hence why I am an analyst by day). Without a doubt, keeping my baby girl in mind (and making sure Mom was okay helping me yet again with caring for us both), plus not wanting to risk the “unknown” of where else the cancer may have gone - I made the choice to do all 3. The first thing I remember in the recovery room was opening my eyes after hearing my grandpa’s voice. He stood over me, asking how I was, as he called to the nurse to come over because all I could mumble was “it hurts.” Grandpa was on it and making everyone move. 

The healing process from two incisions in my armpit area and one in the groin was longer than originally planned. How do you explain to a 2 year old that mommy can’t pick her up because she has a booboo? Yeah, not in her world. I spent countless moments laying on the floor to comfort her and be as close as I could be while Mom nursed me back to health and Julie made her crazy. The silent denominator in it all was my baby brother. Besides giving up his room so his sister could rest, he played with his niece and helped my Mom with this rambunctious 2 year old. I’m sure they were ready for us to head home soon since we were there for almost a month straight between both procedures!

My baby brother proving strength through his passion

The chaos, confusion, heartache, emotions, fear, and every other feeling I felt was heavy. It felt daunting, constant appointments and results to be had. The process, while arduous, was meant to happen for a reason. The purpose and motivation was my little girl. It was a lesson in life to push through my fears, stay strong, and remain positive because as I had learned, it could be way worse. Those statistics I researched could have come true, but they didn’t. As I write this, I am grateful to say I have been cancer free for the past 11 years. 

Why does all this matter? Why am I sharing this with you? It’s not a “poor is me” story, it’s not for sympathy, it’s to show you that through all the hurdles we face - we have a choice to make. A choice of whether or not we are going to let it defeat us or if we are going to face it. Deep in my heart I believe if I let the negative thoughts flood my mind, it would have made the journey much more difficult. Our negative thoughts can be toxic! The next time you are faced with an obstacle, I challenge you to try it. Grab that negative thought by the horns, tell it NO, and focus on the solution. Here I go again with the analyst approach, but whatever you are facing, find the way you can troubleshoot it. 

Yes, I found a nutritional coach to teach me healthy habits, I started learning how to live a non-toxic life, my baby girl and I would do exercise together, and the list goes on. You build a little community of support, take action, and you overcome whatever it is you are facing. Don’t have one you can rely on? Message me, I’m not an expert at all of life's challenges, but I can show you how to remain positive. How to seek a sliver of hope so that you can surpass the daunting “statistics” the internet will provide you. If there is one thing I hope you will take from my journey, is that we are ALL capable of conquering fear. At the end of the day, the choice is yours as to whether or not it is worth it to you to keep on going. Hold on to hope.

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