Thanksgiving Day 2007 couldn't have been more non-traditional: my fiancé Robert Marraro and I spent it in Las Vegas. Ever since my diagnosis of late-stage ovarian cancer at Thanksgiving in 2001, the holiday has never been the same, so we've tried unique and different ways to celebrate over the years.
But there was something special about this trip: It marked my five-year, cancer-free anniversary. We visited the Grand Canyon, stayed at a luxurious suite in a five-star casino and experienced a decadent spa day. On the way home from our week-long trip, we stopped in San Antonio for an extra evening of fun.
That night, I was horribly sick.
The signs are there
Robert later told me it was at that moment, he knew something was seriously wrong with me.
But I was cancer-free. The five-year mark was monumental, especially for an ovarian cancer survivor. For the next five months, I carried on despite being extremely lethargic, gaining weight and losing tremendous amounts of hair. Plus, there were still a host of side effects I was suffering as a result of my chemotherapy, like chronic joint pain, fibromyalgia and neuropathy.
I refused to let my disabilities dampen my spirits for fighting cancer at the grassroots level. The year prior I had been selected as a "Hero of Hope" by the American Cancer Society, which entailed traveling to Relay For Life events across Texas as a survivor spokesperson. I was at a Relay event in Alice, the hometown of my grandmother, Elida Garcia, who had passed away in December 2007 of lung cancer.
As soon as I stepped on the track that night, I could feel her spirit.
An hour later, I tripped and fell, hit my head and passed out. When I awoke, I was in traction and emergency personnel were loading me into an ambulance.
My body demands attention
CT scans of my head and neck revealed no head injuries, but there was something suspicious in my thyroid. The exact verbiage: "Small hypodensity and tiny adjacent calcification within left lobe of thyroid may represent nodule versus cyst."
Despite the fact my doctor at the emergency room was not concerned about it, I decided to take my health in my own hands. I called my gynecologic oncologist at MD Anderson, Pamela Soliman, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology. She advised coming to MD Anderson for a fine needle aspiration.
The procedure itself was painful, but the radiologist, nurses and technicians all made sure I was comfortable. The next day I met Camilo Jimenez, M.D., assistant professor in Endocrine Neoplasia and Hormonal Disorders.
He and I had an instant connection. Looking back on this meeting, I think he sensed the news I had thyroid cancer would be particularly difficult for me.
"Two of the samples came back negative for cancer," he said slowly. "And one ... one came back positive."
I was completely stunned: I had cancer. Again. Two primary cancers and I was only 37.
Dr. Jimenez couldn't have been more caring and sympathetic. He assured me I would receive excellent care, immediately putting my mind at ease. We discussed surgery to remove the thyroid and subsequent radioactive iodine treatment.
In June 2008, Randal Weber, M.D., professor and chair of Head and Neck Surgery, performed a three-hour surgery to remove my thyroid, one parathyroid and 50 lymph nodes. Seven of those lymph nodes came back positive for cancer and my radioactive iodine treatment was scheduled for November -- around Thanksgiving.
Everything seems to go back to Thanksgiving
After enduring a low-iodine diet for two weeks to ensure proper uptake of the radioactive iodine and undergoing several diagnostic tests to see where the cancer still existed, I was mentally prepared for the treatment.
At this point, I knew Dr. Jimenez was preparing to send me to the hospital for the treatment. He entered the room with the biggest, broadest smile I have ever seen on a physician.
"There is no evidence of cancer. So since there's no cancer, there's nothing to radiate. This rarely happens, so go home and enjoy your life," he said happily.
I thought I would literally bounce off the walls. And although today I have numerous "reactive" lymph nodes in my neck that are being closely monitored for signs of cancer, I don't spend much time worrying about it.
I like to relish the fact I am a walking miracle that kicked cancer to the curb twice. I'll do it as many times as I need to in the future, but I'll make sure I have my invaluable medical teams at MD Anderson by my side every step of the way.
And I believe my grandmother was with me that night in Alice. She gave me a gentle, loving push that would eventually help save my life.