The Miami Herald

Maria C. Fernandez

I always bragged that I had never been hospitalized except to give birth to my children. I had a “normal” life, with a husband, children, a job, activities, etc. But things can change in an instant. It was 1985; I was 45 years old and I felt a lump in my breast. After seeing a couple of doctors, I had a biopsy. Days passed and no results. Finally, my doctor told me that it was an unusual tissue and it had been sent to Bethesda Hospital. It was two months later than we finally found out it was negative. We were so relieved… but not for long.

A few months later, I felt another lump and this time, it was cancer and I needed a mastectomy. Suddenly my whole world collapsed. I had no idea where to turn, and no time to do anything but prepare for the surgery. I prayed so much to God! I had three children. The older were 20 and 18 years old, but I still had a 5-year-old daughter. All needed me. My husband was as devastated as I was. The only person I knew who had had a mastectomy lived in Puerto Rico. There was no history of breast cancer in my family. I did not fit any profile. And the question I kept repeating was: why me?

I have always been the strong one and did my best not to show the turmoil I was feeling inside. In a daze I went for the surgery. But I was not alone. Besides my husband and older children, who provided as much support as they could, my family and friends were there also. One of my sisters stayed with me that horrible first night at the hospital after the surgery. Some dear friends took care of my youngest daughter, picking her up at school and keeping her until my husband or other children could take her home. My parents and many friends visited and helped as much as possible. One in particular was very helpful, a dear friend who had cancer and would bring me communion, and talk to me. He was the only one who really understood what I was going through. Unfortunately, he passed away one year afterward. I spent about four days in the hospital. I can’t even imagine how some insurance people pretend to have mastectomy patients discharged the same day. I would have been unable to cope.

I was fortunate enough that I did not need radiation or chemotherapy. The first days at home were very difficult. I felt so depressed, so alone. I tried to find a support group, but nothing worked out. But I survived, and after a while, life started to feel good again. Fast forward to the present. Children left, children married, granddaughters arrived, life continued, my husband and I retired. And then, two years ago, I found the most amazing group of women I have seen in my life. SOS (Save Our Sisters) is a dragon boat team of breast cancer survivors.

This is an incredibly happy group of people who, after the devastating experience of breast cancer, decide that, because we got another opportunity, we have to live our lives at their fullest. I did not know if they will accept me, after all, I am much older than most of them. But they did with open arms. So we meet once a week for practice and go to races. But the most important thing, we support each other because we all have been there. How much I wish I had a group like that 20 something years ago. Nobody cares that I am 69 years old. Breast cancer taught me essential lessons, starting with what is important and what is not. God first, then family and friends. Once you have that, you can conquer any obstacle. So, I am proud to say: I AM A SURVIVOR!




© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.miamiherald.com