Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Talking Teal with Cancer Advocate Rebecca Esparza

On Thanksgiving weekend in 2001, Rebecca Esparza woke from anesthesia to find her parents holding each other up and crying. She took one look at their faces and promptly went back to sleep. Neither Rebecca, nor her parents were prepared for what was to come.
         But then, who could be?
         She was 30 years old and about to learn what the doctors told her parents. A radical hysterectomy had been performed. The tumor on her ovary was malignant and not the benign fibroid discovered in two earlier surgeries. Her diagnosis: germ cell ovarian cancer, a very aggressive, though treatable type of ovarian cancer that occurs in roughly five percent of the 21,000 cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed each year.
         Ovarian cancer, one of the sneakier cancers out there, is an especially difficult one because detection is t problematic. It represents approximately three percent of all cancers in women and is the deadliest of all gynecological cancers. Simply having ovaries – being a woman – and growing older puts one at risk. The overall lifetime risk of developing invasive cancer is low at one in 71. Unlike breast cancer,  there is no one message about screening or detection.
        September is “Ovarian Cancer Awareness” month and an attempt to increase understanding of the pressing need for improved detection and treatment methods.

The cancer diagnosis and loss of childbearing capacity would have been enough for any woman. Rebecca found she’d been transferred to the Labor & Delivery floor with all its joy, balloons, beaming grandparents and crying infants. When she requested a transfer she ran into the second hurdle she’d battle along with her
cancer: indigent care.
         As a free lance marketing and public relations consultant Rebecca, like many young adults diagnosed with cancer, did not have health insurance. She cashed out her 401K and her parents took out a second mortgage before she even started chemotherapy. Then there was the chemo itself and all its long-term side
effects. “The oncologist I ended up with was pretty brutal. She said to me, ‘I sure hope you’re not an athlete because this chemo decimates your lungs. She also said I would lose my hearing...neither happened! ”
          Germ cell ovarian cancer is quite similar to the kind of testicular cancer that champion cyclist and cancer advocate Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with in l994. Where Lance was able to change the chemotherapy drug that damages lung tissue, Rebecca didn’t have a choice.  "My oncologist suggested 'bleomycin' was the preferred drug to battle my germ cell, not 'ifosfamide.' My chemo regimen was 'BEP' and Lance’s was 'VIP,'"she said.
          Her caregiver of 16 years, Robert Marraro and her family kept her afloat during her treatment. “You can’t ever underestimate your family, you can’t say thank you enough,” she said. “They’re the ones who helped me get through this. My Dad was the one with the sense of humor, who tried to make me laugh and who pushed me out the door to my chemo appointment when I was too sick to care.”
          Yet, she says, “I was lucky to get treated."
          Ultimately she turned her experience of “being in the dark” and the “lonely desperate time” trying to find resources into a passionate advocacy and navigation assistance on behalf of underserved populations in Corpus Christi. “There wasn’t one place I could find that had updated info on services for patients battling cancer in Corpus. Robert and I decided that we did not want this to happen to any other family. That’s where we’re coming from,” Rebecca said.
          To that end they are in almost everything cancer related in her community – the American Cancer Society, the Make a Wish Foundation and LIVESTRONG. Rebecca and Robert started a community outreach group in 2003 after becoming connected with the Anderson Network at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where she now goes for treatment.
          After celebrating her fifth “cancerversary” in Las Vegas late in 2007 she started to experience a somewhat familiar run-down feeling. The following April. she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. Removal of her thyroid and 50 lymph nodes followed.
          When it appeared that radioactive iodine treatment wasn't necessary her physician said, “It’s another miracle for you,” her physician said.
           And for us, too.
           The second cancer and anxiety that stems from frequent follow-up do not slow her one bit. She ticked off some of upcoming cancer events – a conference in Washington for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network (ACSCAN), a Make-A-Wish get together for volunteers, October 2 LIVESTRONG
Day, the LIVESTRONG Challenge and yes, back to where we started, “Teal Toes.” She is arranging media coverage for a local spa that is hosting a special ovarian cancer awareness promotion with teal pedicures.
           She laughed about the color. “I’ve learned to take it all in stride.”
                                                                        #   #   #

You can find Rebecca Esparza on twitter @rebeccaesparza and on Facebook. Rebecca, 39, and Robert Marraro live in Corpus Christi, Texas.   In 2008 she was awarded a LIVESTRONG Challenge Award by Lance Armstrong.  She is also a recipient of the American Cancer Society's Presidential Award and an ACS "Hero of Hope."

Resources on Ovarian Cancer:
Ovarian Cancer National Alliance
Libby''s Hope

This is the first in a series of articles on ovarian cancer.  Watch for next week's post!


Annemieke said...

Dear Jody, a beautiful post by an amazing woman about another amazing woman. Both you ladies teach us so much; to be strong, to figh, to tell the signs and to care. The both of you share your stories and spread compassion and wisdom and I thank both of you for the advocay and help you offer to others. It's an honor to know you. Big hug, Annmeieke

Debbie said...

Dear Jody, Thanks for this great post about Rebecca. I follow her on twitter but did not know about her personal battle. It is sad that so many people have to go through such bad experiences but we are all lucky to have people like Rebecca turn their bad experiences into a positive by becoming advocates. She and her husband are doing amazing things, thanks for making me more aware. Love, Deb

Anonymous said...

Hi Jody, I have been following Rebecca on Facebook and Twitter for the past year, but only now do I realise the full extent of all that she has been through and how truly inspirational she is. Thank you for profiling Rebecca's story.

MommaMc said...

HUGE fan of Rebecca and Robert. Two of the most selfless individuals on the planet. I'm lucky to know her.