It was the spring of 2017, and I was about to graduate with a B.A. in sociology from California State University. I studied for four long years while working two jobs in order to survive and take care of my son. My grandmother, Marluce, came from Brazil to attend my graduation and was at my house the day I discovered a ganglion on my left breast. I had just finished my last finals a few weeks before, and I was taking a shower when, suddenly, a bottle of shampoo fell from the top shower shelf and hit me in the breast right where the tumor was.
When I placed my hand where it hit to relieve the pain, I noticed a lump about the size of an average lime. When I got out of the shower, I told my grandmother that I had found a huge lump in my left breast. She said: “Don’t ignore it, because your great-grandmother died of breast cancer.” Despite having finished my studies, I still worked two jobs. After spending eight hours working at a mental health clinic, I would go straight to a pizza place where I worked another four hours delivering pizzas.
My first impulse was to ignore it. I had worked very hard for my degree and didn’t want to consider the possibility that all my efforts had been in vain. My son and I only have each other here in this far-away country. I couldn’t imagine the possibility of leaving him alone here in this complicated world.
The stress only grew when the building where lived raised our rent, and I had to pick up more shifts and worked endlessly. I found the tumor on July 10, but I didn’t go to the doctor until November when our rental contract was finally over, and we were able to move.
With tears, I asked God to not allow this tumor to be malignant. But after several years of living a stressful life trying to balance my responsibilities as a mother, college student, and employee, and taking into account the sleepless nights and rushed meals I ate in the car because there was no time to go home, I knew there was a big chance that my body was demanding accountability.
Beginning my battle
When they found out I possibly had cancer, suddenly EVERYONE thought they were an authority on the subject. A flurry of articles and treatment options surrounded me. At the time, Netflix released documentaries that exposed the pharmaceutical and the meat industries. Natural treatments and veganism were on the rise here in California, and several people in my family and some friends started to frighten me against conventional treatments. Some said that if the tumor was punctured with a needle it would spread.
At the time, I decided to try natural treatments without having done a biopsy to see if the tumor would disappear. I went to a natural treatment clinic in Paraguay at the end of 2017. I returned to California in January 2018 and continued the natural treatments. In March, I went to a natural treatment clinic in Mexico. The tumor hadn’t subsided. The doctor ordered some tests, and after evaluating the results, he called me into the office and said: “I work with natural treatments year-round, and I have seen hundreds of patients cure cancer with natural treatments. But, I can tell you with all certainty that you won’t be able to cure this cancer with natural treatments. It’s very aggressive and advanced. If you don’t undergo chemotherapy you will live, at most, another three years.”
I went to the hotel where I was staying and cried.
I decided, with the opposition of my family, to have a biopsy done. Two days after my son’s 16th birthday, the biopsy results arrived. The doctor told me that I had a malignant tumor of an aggressive type and that I should start chemotherapy immediately. I did eight out of ten chemotherapy sessions and had to stop, as it was affecting my heart. The tumor responded 50% to chemotherapy (it only decreased half of what it should have), so oncologists decided to remove the left breast completely.
It all happened very fast. Within a year of graduation, I was bald and without my left breast. After the mastectomy, I was so debilitated that when I would walk up the stairs (I live on the second floor), I would shake due to weakness. I got home after the doctor removed the bandages and hid in the bathroom alone and sobbed.
I felt defeated and afraid. My son was too young to lose his mother, and I fought hard to provide a better life for us. I have always been very strong and resilient; never before had I had to stop to face my mortality and vulnerability. I remembered the parable of the man who worked hard and wanted to tear down the granaries and build bigger ones, but God said, “Fool, This very night your life will be demanded from you” (Luke 12:16-20). I didn’t want all my effort to be for nothing, but right after I concluded that life is in God’s hands, that He has all the answers, and I handed over the reins of my destiny to Him, I found peace.
I vividly remember the day I decided to fight for my healing and my life. I looked in the mirror and saw a pale face, a head without hair, a scar, and a breast without a nipple with a horizontal cut in the middle that looked more like a stab than a surgical procedure. I looked at my reflection and thought: I only have two choices: to die or to live. I knew that my attitude was fundamental to my survival and I would have to fight with all my strength to get out of this situation. I stood there imagining the happy moments ahead and everything passed through my mind like a movie. I saw myself applauding Alexandre at his graduation. I imagined my proud smile seeing him at the altar joining his life with his bride. I imagined holding a grandson in my arms. I told myself I wanted to live and be part of this “movie” and decided I would do everything in my power to be there for the most important moments of my son’s life. That day, at the beginning of November 2018, I decided that I would fight with all my strength to get my life back, and that if God didn’t allow my healing, I would accept it with resignation. But if I did have to face death prematurely, I would be able to look my son in the eye and tell him I did everything I could. My mother came from Brazil to help me, and she would juice vegetables and fruits that helped strengthen me and gave me more energy.
Two weeks after the tumor was removed, the oncologist called me into the office to talk about the pathological study of the tumor and the results. She told me that, based on the advanced stage and the size of the tumor, I had a 20-40% chance of being alive in the next five years. I had already decided that even if I passed through the valley of the shadow of death, I would fear no evil (Psalm 23:4). Hearing that I had an 80% chance of dying in the next five years didn’t affect my attitude. God taught me that worrying to the point of madness wouldn’t add a single hour to my life. I’m not in control. Learning that I can trust Him who is in control brought me peace.
I’m sure it sounds awful for many people to hear that cancer was one of the best things that happened to me. But looking back I can say this without hesitation. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death showed me that I am not eternal. I am limited. I don’t have time to waste on frivolous things and toxic people. I learned that a life focused on what matters is a happier life. Today, my son is 18 years old and already works and provides for himself. I don’t live in fear anymore. I know that God knows everything and that He is with me; everything will be fine. Neither death nor life can separate me from His love (Romans 8: 38-39). It has been two years since they removed the tumor and I finished the treatments. I am stronger than ever and living the best phase of my life. I have been called to work for the Government of California and am about to fulfill my dream of using my degree to lead a better life. I carry the scars of my battles with me, but they speak of my victories.
A word to my fellow sisters in battle
- Don’t put off seeking help;
- Stay focused on people who survived and on their stories. The deaths of some of my therapy companions reminded me of the seriousness of my condition, but I didn’t focus on those who lost the fight; I focused on the people who overcame;
- Make plans for the future and invest in yourself. During chemotherapy, I was too weak to work, but I took the opportunity to learn another language. Learning another language helped me feel that I was doing something productive and sent a promise of a future to my subconscious, which implied that I believed in my survival.
I hope no one ever goes through moments of illness, but if someone does, I wish that that person finds peace and comfort in the God who said: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope,” Jeremiah 29:11. He also adds: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” Isaiah 41:10.
– Giorgiane Goulart