Mom overcomes pain, fear and guilt while battling an unseen enemy

Two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Angela Mariz is cancer free. As a result of her fight with breast cancer, “My thought process has changed, I have more passion about things, I’m not bothered by the things that used to bother me,” says the single mother of 8-year-old A.J., left, and John Michael, 15.

The first thing to know about Angela Mariz is that she’s a true Southern woman. Thirteen years in the Grand Valley may have mellowed the Memphis in her vowels, but she still can communicate more with a strategically raised index finger or a subtle “mm-hmm” than most people can in paragraphs.

So, there was a lump in her breast. And that was so rude. It had no business being there. As any Southern woman knows, you don’t go where you’re not invited. Her response, then, was this: Get. It. Out.

Two years past the lumpectomy, past the chemotherapy and the bald head, the antibody infusions and skin-burning radiation, the sorrow and anger and mother’s guilt, she is here. And she is healthy and her blond hair looks fabulous and her boys are doing great, and she’s about the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.

The index finger goes up, pointing for emphasis. “I didn’t consider myself sick,” she says. “I had something I needed to get rid of.”

Which isn’t to imply it was or is easy. Cancer never is. Two years ago, she was an active 37-year-old with a job as a medical assistant at a family practice and 6- and 13-year-old sons. She was busy. She was healthy. And in April 2008, after a free-and-clear physical just four months earlier, she felt something during a regular self-exam. It felt like a small pebble in her left breast and that, she knew, wasn’t good.

She went into work that day and told her co-workers, “Feel this. What do you think?” They thought, as she did, that she should see a doctor, which she did the very next morning.

She had no reason to think breast cancer — no family history, no risky behaviors or bad habits, nothing that would make her think this tiny lump would change her life.

But a mammogram followed by an ultrasound and then a biopsy confirmed what she didn’t want to hear: invasive ductal carcinoma. She was triple-negative, meaning she had none of the hormone receptors that might be pointed to as a cause or aid in the treatment of the cancer, “and that’s so frustrating, because there’s no reason that you got this cancer,” she says.

On April 10, 2008, she got her diagnosis. She had to tell her boys, a seemingly impossible task. What to say to them? How to explain it?

Her older son, John Michael, had a friend whose mother had been through breast cancer, so he had an inkling of what might happen.

Her younger son, A.J., was only 6. She got him a book about cancer and read it with him, and told him things might get a little hard sometimes, but he didn’t need to worry.

Then it all began. She had surgery to remove two lumps and 15 lymph nodes, then another surgery to implant a port under her skin. By mid-May, she was ready to begin chemotherapy.

The morning of her first treatment, she stood outside St. Mary’s Advanced Medicine Pavilion, trembling. She couldn’t bring herself to go through the main doors, because over them were the words “Regional Cancer Center.” She entered through a side door instead.

Sitting down, feeling unready for the unknown, she stared at her nurse with enormous eyes. Approaching with a huge syringe of what, essentially, is poison, the nurse talked Angela through it quietly and calmly, pushing chemotherapy drugs into the port in her chest, reassuring her, soothing her.

“That made such a huge difference,” Angela says. “My doctors, the surgeons, the nurses, everyone was so amazing, so helpful. They really talk you through your fears and help you understand what’s going on. And my family and friends were incredible. They supported me the whole way, even people I hadn’t heard from in years. My ex-husband was with me at every appointment, my parents, my boys — people were incredible.”

Two days after her first chemotherapy treatment, her scalp started hurting. She reached up to rub it and came back with a handful of hair. She called her ex-husband and said, “You’re shaving my head.”

At first, they cried — “I’m Southern. We love our hair,” she says, laughing. But then, he started giggling. Angela was cringing into a towel, so she peeked out and asked what was so funny.

“You look like Billy Ray Cyrus,” he told her.

Then, a few swipes of the clippers later, she looked like she had mange. Finally, hairless, he told her she has a perfect head.

It was moments like those that stood out in what, at times, became a haze of treatments and exhaustion and, sometimes, crushing worry. She had chemotherapy for four months, as well as a year of a clinical trial antibody infusion and 39 radiation treatments, the maximum. There were nights she went to bed at 7. There were mornings she had to force herself to get up.

There were days she felt so guilty for the burden her sons carried. One night, A.J. went next door for a sleepover but came home crying at 10:30, worried about being away from his mom.

At the time, it seemed like the year would never end. Looking back, with what she calls “chemo brain” — “chemotherapy really jacks your memory,” she says — it was a blur. One day she had a radiation treatment and the next day she didn’t.

She had a PET scan at the end of radiation and had to wait a day for the results. It was excruciating. But when she did get the results, and they were clear of cancer, it was the most intense wash of relief she’s ever felt.

And then, onward into what has become a new world. She now is someone who survived cancer and the shadow of it is always near.

For the first two years afterward, she had mammograms or MRIs every three months. At her two-year anniversary in April, it became every six months.

There’s inevitable feeling of worry before every test or any time she feels a twinge or an ache. But if she’s thinking, “Hmm ...” so are her doctors.

Onward, then. A road trip to Tennessee with her boys — now 8 and 15 — over the summer, baseball games and dinners with friends, movie nights and backyard barbecues. She now works as a medical assistant at the cancer center. Life is as big and full as she can make it.

“You’ve got to live,” she says. “My thought process has changed, I have more passion about things, I’m not bothered by the things that used to bother me. I mean, I’m turning 40 soon and it’s no big deal, whereas it might have bothered me before. But I’m here, and that’s what matters.”


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