Mailet Lopez | My Stage IIB Breast Cancer Journey
Mailet, a Stage IIB breast cancer survivor and founder of IHadCancer, discusses her 10+ year-long journey in the cancer world as well as the advocacy world. Read on to learn more about her Stage IIB cancer survivorship experience, and why she chose to join Count Me In, a patient-partnered cancer research initiative.
What is your cancer story?
Mailet: I was doing my usual breast self-exam, and I noticed a lump. Not thinking much of it, I mentioned it to my gynecologist. You hear so many stories in the cancer community of doctors telling patients with symptoms that they were too young for cancer. I was very fortunate that my gynecologist decided to send me for a biopsy “just in case”. It ended up being positive, sending me spiraling into the cancer world at 33 years old. I was diagnosed with Stage IIB Breast Cancer.
It’s good to go for a second opinion once you receive a cancer diagnosis. One doctor immediately said for me to go have a mastectomy, removing my entire breast. I went for a second opinion and that doctor said I could have a lumpectomy instead and see if there would be clean margins around where the tumor was. If the margins weren’t clean, I could then consider a full mastectomy. The second option made more sense to me and that’s the route I took.
At 33, you’re at a stage in your life when you start planning out quite a few things. Marriage, kids, higher career goals. No one adds being sick to this plan. Having cancer interrupted where I was in my life. Everything became focused on being healthy and beating cancer. No one considers dying until they’re faced with a situation where they might die. No one goes through life thinking about all the bad things that could possibly happen. Cancer, like any major life event, gives some people more insight into their life priorities. For others, it stops them in their tracks and takes them down a completely new life path.
No one ever wishes to have cancer. I wouldn’t even wish it on my worst enemy. I’m grateful for having great healthcare that took care of a lot of my cancer costs and that my insurance actually covered a few of the complementary therapies I did. When you think of people who end up losing their life savings to fight this disease, it reminds me of how unfair life could be. This is something that we survivors come across often.
A year out from cancer, I was celebrating and looking forward to celebrating 5 years cancer-free. It came and went, and did I feel any better? I was happy to cross the milestone, but there was still fear. What is that pain? Am I just sick or is it cancer? That anxiety remained. I’m not as fearful now that I’m over 10 years out, but now that fear has given way to me noticing what I feel like I missed out on in life. I wonder if the changes my body has gone through over the years are because of cancer, or would my body have been this way regardless? I will never have the answer to that. My family kept me busy, traveling kept me busy, and housework/gardening kept me busy. But when you pause and start reflecting on your life, that’s when it really hits you.
Why do you want your cancer experience to count?
Mailet: Because I want to help the next person with cancer. Hopefully, my samples will end up leading to research discoveries that will help thousands of other people. My wish is that this is one way I can positively impact the life of someone other than myself.
When we had this opportunity to partner with Count Me In, I looked back and reflected on all that I’ve gone through with cancer and what others go through. I want my life to have meaning to more people than just my family and my friends. I want my experience and what I went through to help other people. Whether it helps millions of people or just a few people in the future, I want my experience to mean something. To make it count. Whether it be a sample of saliva, a piece of my tumor, or a blood sample, every bit counts. When you add up all the pieces from a large network of people, it could lead to a significant impact that could change the trajectory of future cancer research and result in new cancer treatments or therapies. I want my life to have more meaning, and this is a way that I can do that.
The biggest impact you can make is when you are working with others. It’s hard to make a large impact by yourself. You want to align yourself with people who are working towards the same goal to have a greater impact. Joining Count Me In doesn’t take much work. You fill out the waiver forms online to send your medical information, and then send in your saliva sample. If you want to go further by donating blood or tumors, you have the option to do so. It’s simple for anyone to participate, yet it could have such a huge impact on cancer research.
Do you have a motivational message for others in the cancer community?
Mailet: A few years ago, I would’ve just said “Be your own advocate and keep moving forward!” Now, I have a different message.
Take a moment to pause, let reality set in, and allow yourself to feel the emotions related to your cancer. Whether that be taking a moment to scream, to cry, to laugh, whatever it is. Just allow yourself to feel that. If you force yourself to just keep moving without taking the time to pause, you’ll leave things emotionally unresolved within yourself. Those feelings will return, they don't disappear forever. Allowing yourself to take that time to feel your true feelings is so important.
Being positive can keep you from being completely swallowed whole by feelings of anxiety or depression from the trauma of your cancer experience. But allowing your mind and body to take that pause is just as if not more important, even if that pause moment isn’t positive. This wasn’t my mindset 10 years ago, but this is how I truly feel today.
You don’t realize what your cancer after-effects are going to be immediately after treatment. At 33, my body had some changes but it wasn’t done changing yet. Keep monitoring yourself, keep talking about what you’re going through. When you talk to other people, you can share information about what’s going on and hopefully find solutions that work for you. Talking won’t give you a diagnosis for your issues, but it will give you education as a starting point.
What is one word that describes your cancer journey?
Mailet: Bumpy. It’s not a straight line. Emotionally and physically, my journey has felt like a winding road full of everything from hairpin turns to high and low hills. But it's all led to where I am today, and I'm looking forward to where this road leads me in the future.
Count Me In is a nonprofit patient-partnered research program that aims to accelerate the pace of cancer research by collecting and analyzing comprehensive data from patients with cancer. The program is a collaborative effort between patients, caregivers, researchers, and clinicians. To join the Making It Count movement, visit JoinCountMeIn.org.