First Person

Drawing strength from a singer’s defiant spirit

 

Miami Herald online producer Andrea Torres chronicles her breast-cancer experiences in Tropical Life. Read previous stories at MiamiHerald.com/health.

atorres@miamiherald.com

Soraya Lamilla was a force to be reckoned with. We shared a homeland and a breast cancer diagnosis, and though she is gone, she inspires me every day.

Soraya was one of my favorite Colombian singers. She taught herself to play the guitar as a little girl, and wrote and sang in English and Spanish. I met her once in Coconut Grove, but I would never have imagined that she would become a source of strength for me.

At 31, Soraya was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. My cancer was Stage IIIA. Like me, she had chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation therapy. She moved on with her life, and a few years after her breast reconstruction, she won a Latin Grammy.

Soraya was the first Latin spokesperson for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. To raise funds for the foundation, she dedicated a song to breast cancer survivors titled No One Else/Por Ser Quien Soy and performed it in downtown Miami in 2002 before thousands of people who participated in the Komen Race for the Cure. (Both tracks can be downloaded at her website, .) The cancer returned, taking her life in 2006 at the age of 37.

Soraya embodies both the resilient spirit of a defiant fighter and the fierce force of the disease. Even when we do everything we can to survive, the cancer can come back with a vengeance.

The American Cancer Society reports that about two-thirds of women diagnosed with Stage IIIA breast cancer in 2001 and 2002 lived for at least five more years. (The numbers do not take into account unrelated causes of death.)

Most recurrences happen in the first three to five years after initial treatment. There were cancerous cells in three of the lymph nodes the surgeon removed from under my arm, which makes the odds higher for me.

Still, a host of factors including the size of the tumor, its response to estrogen and progesterone, the presence or absence of the HER2 protein and genetic mutations mean every diagnosis is different.

When I asked Dr. Alicia Rodriguez-Jorge, my new internist, for the signs I should be looking for she responded in frustration.

“Out in the waiting room there are patients with cystic fibrosis … and other diseases,” she said. “People accept their conditions and continue with their lives. You have to accept that breast cancer is a part of your life now.”

I wanted to walk out of her office, but I didn’t. I reminded myself that I had chosen her as my doctor because I could tell that she was a caring woman.

“We are going to be watching you closely,” she assured me.

Nonetheless, my need for statistics got the better of me. I found a report from the California Breast Cancer Research Program that put the relapse rate for Stage III patients at “greater than 90 percent.”

I couldn’t sleep, and before 5 a.m., I called the 24-hour Y-Me Hotline (800-221-2141). Linda, who was diagnosed about a decade ago, answered. I told her everything.

“Every patient is different. You need to talk to your oncologist. You can’t rely on these statistics,” she said. “Not everyone dies. I know many women who have survived several recurrences. Chances are you may never have one.”

My thoughts returned to Soraya. She left behind a short audio diary that could serve as a treatment guide. (It is searchable on YouTube under Soraya’s Diary.) I listened to her soothing voice as my treatment progressed. In the seventh segment, she shared that after treatment, she didn’t like her reflection in the mirror.

Her advice: “Carry yourself as you would like the world to see you, tall and strong. You are courageous and beautiful. Believe it, when you look in the mirror that is who you will see.”

I think about those words every morning before I walk out of my apartment. Even in death, she is giving me strength.

As she said in a farewell to her fans: “All that is left is for me to modestly ask you to continue supporting our mission. Do not give up. … The road ahead is a long one, and this is a battle worth fighting.”

MY JOURNEY

Part 1: At age 33, I’m dealing with breast cancer

Part 2: Cancer treatment complicates dreams of pregnancy

Part 3: Hanging in when chemotherapy gets rough

Part 4: Tough surgery choices: Mastectomy vs. Lumpectomy

Part 5: Silicone implans are not the only way to go in breast reconstruction

Part 6: Rebuilding the breast from body tissue

Part 7: Body fat can be used to build breast

Part 8: Facing my fears after mastectomy

Part 9: Taking control of the fear that comes with breast cancer

Part 10: Doctor knows about being a breast cancer survivor

Part 11: Radiation therapy gives her hope

Part 12: Finding strength from others

Part 13: Facebook, medication help breast cancer patient deal with depression

Part 14: A new outlook on 2012

Part 15: Breast cancer patient faces genetic mystery

Part 16: Using diversion to cope with harsh reality

Part 17: After radiation therapy ends

Part 18: Friend’s breast cancer journey is not as fortunate

Part 19: Anti-tumor meds come with scary story

Part 20: Reentry into the world after breast cancer treatment

Part 21: Too much fear, too little trust

Part 22: Chemo brain complicates return to work

Part 23: Tumor is gone but the fear

From the Editor: Journalist confronts cancer, takes readers along

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