At the young age of 36 the most important woman in my life was diagnosed with the dreaded disease of breast cancer. “It’s an aggressive cancer,” they told her. With courage she did the mastectomy and did not allow this disease to take control of her life. Being October breast cancer awareness month, I had no doubt about the person who deserved this space to tell us her story. Without further a do I leave you with this interview to my mother, Carmen Rosa Sahdalá de Alberti, my source of inspiration, my rock, my WONDER WOMAN.
At what particular moment in your life where you when you learned that you had cancer?
It was in February of 1988. I used to do the breast self-examination every month and on that occasion I felt something different in my left breast. I did not waste time and the next day I visited my gynecologist and he, after examining me, sent me to the oncologist. I knew something was not right. When the oncologist did the puncture, he confirmed that it was necessary to operate, after detecting a mass behind the nipple.
That same week I went to Puerto Rico and there I bumped into an angel that God put in my way, Dr. Luis Vallecillo, who confirmed the diagnosis and arranged my operation for two days later.
I was 36 years old, I would turn 37 in May, three small children of 8, 6 and 4 years respectively, and my life partner, who was from the first moment my great support, in addition to my faith in God.
I do not deny that it was an extremely difficult and painful time, but I bucked up and decided to live.
Who were you with when you got the news?
When I got the first diagnosis in Santo Domingo I was with your dad, Herminio. Then when I went to Puerto Rico, I went to Dr. Vallecillo with Aunt Nelly and your dad, who left to be with me in my operation on Friday of that same week, February 12, 1988.
My brothers and I were very young when you were first diagnosed. What went through your mind when you got those first results?
When I was told that I had breast cancer, the first thing that came to my mind was, “What do I do now? What awaits me?
I said to myself: I am a young woman, happily married, with wonderful children who were just beginning their life journey; professionally realized, since I worked in the Santo Domingo School and was very happy with my students and co-workers.
Above all, I thought of you, my children, and that in that moment that I had to fight with all my strength to overcome the disease, with the help of God. I never thought that it was a death sentence. I asked what to do and I did not want to waste time.
Curious thing, rather than think of me I thought of you. I decided that I was going to live and I gave her absolutely, my brokenness in the healing hands of the Lord.
From that moment I prepared to do everything that Dr. Vallecillo suggested and I trusted fully in his wisdom, his great humanity and his great professionalism.
For a moment, I felt devastated as usual after receiving such news; but that feeling did not last long, because I decided that I had to face this with all the strength and the desire.
At that moment I decided not to opt for the reconstruction, because I cared more to eliminate all trace of cancer. I acknowledge that for any woman it is very hard to face the mutilation of a part of her body, but it is a very personal decision and, as such, must be respected, both when choosing not to rebuild and when the person resorts to it. For both, you have to be psychologically prepared and therefore it was a choice I made from my first intervention, with the total and unconditional support of your father, who accompanied me emotionally at all times.
You were and have always been a fighter, full of virtues and strength. What did you feel when you were diagnosed for a second time? Was it in the same place? How did you manage to keep your composure in front of us?
After having undergone a modified radical mastectomy on the left side and having passed the whole process, I performed my check-ups consistently and without missing out on any of my medical appointments. On that first occasion, because I was detected at an early stage and the tumor was in-situ (localized) and had no axillary ganglion involved, it was not necessary to give me any further treatment. However, nine years later, in 1997, at my annual checkup I was found to have a nodule on the mastectomy scar. As it was superficial, not internal, I had an operation to remove it and it was ambulatory. But, being recurrent, it was mandatory to give me chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
It was very hard for me, because I believed that everything was over and this new diagnosis made me rethink everything. I remember that when Dr. Vallecillo gave me the news, he stood up from his desk, hugged me and cried with me. But, at the same time, he assured me that everything was going to be okay, because the good news was that I was internally free of cancer cells.
Keeping my composure in front of you, paradoxically, was hard and easy. It was hard because I would have to be a long time away from you and I would have to be traveling continuously for treatments and, in that year, there were important events that I did not want to miss: “Honors Night” and your sister’s Marinelly graduation. And, it was easy because you were all older and understood my illness.
At first, I traveled every 21 days for chemotherapy sessions and then it was more uncomfortable as I was traveling to give me radiation on Sunday afternoons and came back Friday night. I decided that my brokenness would not interfere with the normal course of your lives, because I had the support of your father, your aunts Hilda and Carmen and you were well cared for and loved by our dear Yoma, your nana (nanny). I think it was very positive to trust all of them, because none of these negatively affected your school performance or your daily activities. It was fundamental at all times the love and support of my dear brothers Mari, Zaidy and Victor Manuel.
You gave me the strength to move forward and rewarded me with excellent school grades and your mature and responsible behavior throughout the process.
I felt enormously blessed!
How is your life now?
My life is now fuller. I was always an introvert, reflective and very realistic. I am still the same, but I value much more the truly important things: family, friends, nature, and I decided to help people who were going through the same thing. It does not matter if I know the person or not, I suggest how to face the different stages of the disease and try to encourage them, infusing them with optimism and hope.
I know that your family and friends have been very important in your life. What helped you most from the support received during the battle against cancer?
First of all, what helped me most during the battle against cancer was my faith. I fully trusted that God would intervene in my healing and so HE did.
The support received from your father was paramount; as well as the affection and welcome of my uncles Nelly and Mario. Without forgetting also the unconditional love from you and your siblings, and the solidarity of my brothers, relatives, friends and my dear students, who prayed daily in school for my health.
As an anecdote, I remember that for my first speech, when I woke up on the morning of February 14, I found the entire hospital room full of red hearts on the walls, a gift from your dad, for Valentine’s Day. Also, I was given letters written by all my students, which I still keep, encouraging me and expressing their affection and love towards me.
In those moments, this is invaluable: to know that you are being accompanied in the proximity and in the distance. Love is definitely healing.
What was the greatest lesson?
The greatest lesson learned from all this was that life was given to us, but we can lose it at any moment in time. What is important is to live it, minute by minute and in the company of people who really mean something to you.
To face day to day with optimism, to be thankful for the blessings received, to learn to forgive and, above all, to trust in the infinite power of God. This last, had its maximum manifestation in my life through the unforgettable father Emiliano Tardiff, who was a divine instrument, to transmit me healing in a mass where I had a direct encounter with him, in the middle of my treatments, and who put his hands on my shoulders, joined his forehead with mine, flooding me with indescribable heat, and I felt the wonderful gift of healing from God. Since that day, my health improved and my life changed; when I traveled to receive treatment, I received the wonderful news that it would be the last one, because I was incredibly well.
What advice do you give women who are going through this disease?
Advising women who are going through this disease sometimes becomes a bit difficult, because not all of them are in the same situation or level of emotional pain, but I do suggest that, above all, to stay healthy, that they adopt a positive attitude and of collaboration, to disregard negative thoughts, because this is a battle and we must fight to win.
It is not easy, but it can be achieved.
- Trust in God, in your doctors and open up to others to avoid depression and discouragement.
- Do not be afraid to talk about your suffering; that alleviates the pain.
- Take better care of the body, as to what you eat, and also exercise.
In life everything happens and this is another stage that must be lived and overcome and, for that, we must focus on recovery and hope for healing. I also recommend using meditation and introspection to achieve a state of complete well-being.
Your advice to all the women who are reading us.
First of all, prevention, regular check-ups and self-examination are extremely important.
It is more often that we see younger women being diagnosed, so visiting the doctor annually is non-negotiable.
Life is a divine gift and we must always take care of it and with responsibility.
If they are detected with the disease, my suggestion is to act immediately, because time is valuable to stop the course of the disease. The earlier one is diagnosed and treated, the greater the chance of survival.
Be grateful every day for your health, and face any battle with optimism and courage if it comes to your lives.
Fill your life with purpose and focus on truly simple and important things, forget about the superfluous and dedicate yourselves to living in fullness, humility, joy and hope.
This is my message for you dear mother: During your most difficult moments you remained the best mother, wife, sister and teacher of all. You were the winner of that hard battle and even when being diagnosed a second time you did not allow this to defeat you. I remember how in our visits to Puerto Rico after receiving Chemo and Radiotherapy … you would come out of that hospital and would not show us the slightest sign of weakness or defeat. You would say, “Let’s go to Plaza to walk.” Once again you overcame the disease and since then you have been an inspiration to many people who have been and are being affected by any type of cancer. You’re a fighter. Your FAITH and spirit for life serves as an engine to all of us who have the joy of being part of your life. I think with this message I also speak for my brothers Mari and Jose and for Pa. We love you.
My “ma”! I hope your history of triumph gets to travel all around the world!
Thank you for being.
P.S. Help us raise more awareness in the world by sharing this interview and bringing a drop of hope to the world.