Difficult roads can lead to beautiful destinations.
For as long as I can remember, my mom has been a source of strength. She’s my comforter, advisor, mentor and role model.
But in 2017, the tables turned when a doctor discovered my mom had ocular melanoma, a type of eye cancer. It was in her right eye. My mom would need many months of treatment, with moral support along the way.
Now it was my turn to support her, just as she had always supported me.
Early eye cancer warning sign
The first hint of cancer happened in 2009 in Guatemala, where we lived at the time. While cleaning dishes, my mom accidentally got soap in her eye. When she looked in the mirror while rinsing her eye with water, she noticed a curious dark spot. She visited a doctor in Guatemala, who said it was nothing to worry about.
But the spot began interfering with my mom’s vision, so she visited two more doctors. Each told her it was the equivalent of a freckle, and not to worry. We put the spot out of our minds, and life continued as normal.
Finally, an eye cancer diagnosis: ocular melanoma
In 2011, my family’s dream came true when our green card application was approved and we were granted U.S. permanent residency. My mom, dad, sister and I moved to Texas and settled in a Dallas suburb. My dad got a factory job, my sister and I enrolled in school, and my mom cared for our home and cooked amazing Guatemalan dishes like pollo en pipian – chicken in a creamy pumpkin seed sauce – and Guatemalan tamales wrapped in banana leaves.
All the while, the spot in my mom’s eye had been growing larger and darker. Her vision was becoming more obscured, and she felt as though something were floating in her eye. Unable to tolerate it any longer, she visited an ophthalmologist in Dallas. He biopsied the spot, then delivered the news: my mom had ocular melanoma in her right eye. The doctor explained that most people think of melanoma as an aggressive form of skin cancer, but it can also affect the eyes.
He recommended treatment at MD Anderson.
Overcoming fear about my mom’s ocular melanoma diagnosis
My family was scared and upset. In our culture, we equate cancer with death. I wanted to be strong for my mom, but I could only think about the worst-case scenario.
That changed the minute we walked in the doors of MD Anderson. Everyone was so warm and welcoming. They truly cared about my mom – not just her physical health, but also her mental well-being. They called her by her name and gave her one-on-one personal attention which made her feel special.
I could see my mom’s anxieties begin to disappear. She knew she was in the best of hands, and she would beat this disease.
Combination therapy allowed my mom to keep her eye
From December 2017 to January 2019, my mom went to MD Anderson every three weeks. Her eye cancer specialist, Dr. Bita Esmaeli, prescribed intravenous injections of the immunotherapy drug Keytruda to help her immune system recognize and attack the cancer more effectively. Dr. Esmaeli also prescribed mitomycin eye drops to deter the growth of cancer cells and reduce scarring. My mom’s melanoma rapidly improved with this combination therapy.
The only other option would have been to remove the entire eye, so we’re very grateful to Dr. Esmaeli for recommending immunotherapy.
By June 2019, my mom’s tumor had shrunk enough to be surgically removed. Today, she shows no signs of cancer, and her vision is excellent. We return to MD Anderson every six months to check for signs of recurrence. So far, so good.
Looking to the future
I’ve always been fascinated by science, but accompanying my mom during her cancer experience has inspired me to become an oncologist. I’ll graduate from Texas A&M University in two years with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science. After that, my sights are set on medical school.
My mom’s experience also motivated me to volunteer with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one cancer support community. The program trains survivor and caregiver volunteers to share their cancer experiences with others who have the same diagnoses, treatments and other similarities. Talking with someone who has gone through the same thing can be so uplifting.
I often think back to where we would be today had my mom not come to MD Anderson. We feel blessed that God led us here, and we’re grateful beyond measure to the MD Anderson health care professionals who have given my mom a future.
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