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Coming to Terms with Change and Knowing My Limits

Cancer changes more than your body. Here’s how I coped.

By Ana Alvarez and Catarina Martinez

During the weeks between receiving my cancer diagnosis and starting my treatment, I met with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center staff to discuss my care plan. Before one of those preparatory meetings, I sat in the waiting room. My building plans (plus me) took up three seats (I’m an architect).

Ana Alvarez and Catarina Martinez Ana Alvarez (pictured right) with her daughter, Catarina Martinez (pictured left).

On the outside, I didn’t look that different from the days before my diagnosis: phone in one hand, notebook in the other, surrounded by drawings and pens of all different colors. Yet, on the inside, I was struggling with fear and anxiety and assuming the worst. I worried about how I would feel and respond to treatment, but I was even more worried about what the treatment experience would do to my family.

The nurse who ran my appointment began by saying, “You know, I went through cancer treatment five years ago, and I was able to keep working and keep up with my family obligations most days.”

She understood that it was important to me when she saw how quickly I set up a mobile office situation. Her comment came out of the blue — it was as if she had read my mind.

“It takes some planning, understanding your limits, and help from your family and support team, but it is possible,” she continued. “Prioritize your nutrition, exercise, and sleep.”

We talked for an hour. She went into detail about foods and activities that made her feel good. Not in a way that made me feel like I needed to upend my life or that if I copied her, everything would turn out fine. But in a way that made me begin to think about how this time in treatment would allow me to make positive changes for my health and my connection with my family.

Looking back, it was such a gift, and maybe fate, that I happened to meet her.

My journey began a few weeks later: first surgery, then weekly chemotherapy, then 29 rounds of radiation and other infusions spanning from January 2015 to December 2015, followed by oral medication until 2020. My family tackled it the best way we knew how: Cuban-style. “We” included my husband, mom, sister, kids, godmother, in-laws, extended family, co-workers, friends, and neighbors. Everyone pitched in, just as we’d always done with everything from cooking to party planning to child-raising.

My sister came with me to my doctors’ appointments and kept track of the research and avalanche of information, which helped me avoid my anxious habit of googling all night long. My daughter, who was away for college, flew down for the first and last chemo sessions. Laughter came easily because of my funny, sometimes effusive son, who can find humor in the most unlikely scenarios. And when I made the choice to change to a plant-based diet, it was a radical adjustment for my mother and mother-in-law, but they rose to the challenge.

I would prepare for chemo as if I was preparing for an important work event. I would go to sleep early, hydrate, and bring soup and smoothies to the session. I had chemotherapy on Fridays (with my husband and my mom). Saturdays and Sundays were for rest so that I could be back to work on Mondays.

I met several times with Sylvester’s Cancer Support Services, which helped me focus on my nutrition, supplements, sleep, and exercise. I would also attend lunch-time information sessions with Sylvester’s breast cancer support groups. I began to be more mindful about saying no to unnecessary things and saying yes to the important ones. Walking was one of those things I did every day, even if it was just a few minutes around the block, even if I did not want to.

I recognize that I am fortunate to have been able to make these lifestyle changes without extreme difficulty, but I still saw these positive adjustments as a way to take control of my health. I wasn’t just a cancer patient and certainly didn’t want to treat myself like a victim. Continuing at work gave me comfort and stability amid the changes I couldn’t control, like tiredness, and the changes I could control, like my diet. I did give myself space to be frustrated, sad, and worried. Yes, some days were awful. During radiation, which was the hardest part, the fatigue was intense. But I treated myself to rest, good food, and slow walks. These lifestyle changes turned into habits that are still very much a part of my life today.

About Ana Alvarez

My cancer was discovered at Sylvester through early detection. I was a young woman at the time. I did not have any telling signs or a family history of breast cancer. I joined the Patient and Family Committee at Sylvester (“PFAC”) shortly after completing treatment. I am both a patient and family member in the Sylvester community. My father passed away from cancer only two years prior to my diagnosis. I understand there is still much work to be done in cancer research. I am grateful for the care we received at Sylvester and to everyone who helped us move through this stage of my life. My daughter, Catarina Martinez, contributed to this article.