In this must-read cancer awareness interview, Rita spills on her epic fight and the real talk on early detection. Dive into the world of a Latina boss battling the odds. Get ready to be shook by her journey and the major health lessons she’s dropping!
In an inspiring interview with LATINA COOL, Rita Avellar, a fierce Latina from Brazil, who triumphed over Stage 2A breast cancer, unveils her deeply personal journey. Navigating the American healthcare system as an immigrant, confronting the terrifying diagnosis, and embracing the transformative power of adversity, Rita’s story is more than just a tale of survival. It’s a testament to the indomitable human spirit, the importance of early detection, and the profound changes that such a challenge can bring about in one’s life. Dive in to learn about her remarkable experience and the invaluable lessons it holds for every woman.
LATINA COOL: Rita, first and foremost, it’s heartwarming to know that you’ve triumphed over cancer. Your courage in sharing your story plays a crucial role in raising awareness about the significance of early detection and prevention. Let’s delve into the beginning. How did you first discover your diagnosis? Was it through a routine test, or did you notice unusual changes in your body?
RITA: Thank you so much! One of the reasons I decided to share my story with all my friends, family, and the public was to raise awareness about the disease, the importance of routine tests, the treatment, and the possible strategies that can help individuals navigate such a challenging treatment. My case serves as a poignant example of the significance of regular testing.
During my almost nine years in the US, I went without health insurance for six years, leaving me to pay out of pocket for any doctor’s visits as I only had coverage for emergencies. Considering I was incredibly health-conscious, working as a health coach, maintaining an extremely healthy lifestyle, and exercising daily, I never anticipated receiving a diagnosis like this, especially with no family history of cancer. My family has a history of heart problems, a concern that I have always carried. In October 2021, I was finally able to obtain health insurance under my husband’s plan. My primary doctor, who has been my guiding light, ordered a series of tests, including a mammogram.
In 2014, before moving to the US, I had a mammogram at 37. In Brazil, I was accustomed to having ultrasound examinations to monitor a couple of fatty cysts in both of my breasts. Upon having the mammogram here in 2021 at the age of 44, the doctor decided to repeat it within six months, taking into account my mammogram history here.
Six months later, I repeated the mammogram, followed by an ultrasound. The doctor noted that one of the cysts exhibited some calcification and advised a biopsy. I promptly underwent the biopsy within nine days. The moment my doctor called with the biopsy results, I was on my way back home after a walk at the park with my dog. He asked me to pull over my car. Naturally, I froze. He then conveyed that the biopsy had confirmed cancer, and I needed to schedule an appointment with the oncologist immediately. Within two days, I was already consulting with the oncologist who said I would need to start the treatment within a month because my case was aggressive.
LATINA COOL: Can you describe the emotions and thoughts that overwhelmed you when you first heard; You have breast cancer?
RITA: After receiving the news in my car, I went into the house, and my husband was in the kitchen. I was in shock and told him. He couldn’t believe it! I immediately called the oncologist I was referred to and scheduled my first visit. Then, I called my mom. Two days later, my husband accompanied me to the oncologist’s appointment.
The oncologist provided a thorough explanation of the cancer I had. They gave me a book detailing my condition and outlined every step of the treatment, including some extra tips, even holistic ones. My case was the triple-negative type, an aggressive form with only one treatment option. Initially, it was considered stage 3, but after an MRI, it was reclassified as stage 2A. I was an emotional wreck!
After the nearly two-hour appointment, I cried like a baby in the car. My husband, who was deeply concerned about me, even returned to the office to find something to calm me down. I called my mom again, another angel in my life. I was in the ‘why me’ stage. How could I have cancer when I was super healthy? But cancer doesn’t discriminate.
In a few days, after speaking with others who had battled breast cancer, I found some solace and began to prepare a plan. I had one month to get my life and myself ready. I also flew my mom here to support me, which she did!
LATINA COOL: Considering your age and zest for life, was this diagnosis unexpected? Is there any history of breast cancer in your family?
RITA: Completely unexpected! There’s no history of breast cancer on my mom’s side of the family, and on my dad’s side, there’s only one aunt who had it, and she was almost 70 when she was diagnosed. I even did a genetic test to check if I carried the gene, but the result was negative. I was 45 when I discovered it. Given the size and type of cancer, it’s possible that I had it for a couple of years before the diagnosis. It was incredibly unexpected! Even the doctors couldn’t provide a clear answer as to why. Naturally, I started searching for an emotional explanation, and that eventually began to make sense.
LATINA COOL: You mentioned that you moved from Brazil to the USA in 2015. Diagnosed seven years later, in 2022, can you shed light on your experience as an immigrant battling this disease? Were there specific challenges related to language, healthcare, or the emotional toll of being away from your loved ones? How did you navigate these obstacles?
RITA: Well, I believe that God has plans for everyone, right? I’m incredibly blessed to have found out about my condition when I had health insurance. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even know how to navigate this. I was exceptionally fortunate with the treatment I received and the amazing team that took care of me. I’m so, so, so blessed, and I can’t thank them enough!
As I mentioned, my mom came here and stayed with me during the whole treatment, nearly a year by my side. She initially came for a 6-month visit, but we managed to extend her visa with the help of letters from the oncologists, so she could stay the remaining time. I consider myself very lucky!
LATINA COOL: A year has passed since your diagnosis, during which you underwent a multitude of treatments – chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and immunotherapy. How are you feeling today? What updates have your doctors shared regarding your current health status?
RITA: Today, I am feeling fantastic! Last week, I had my follow-up visit with the oncologist, and then I met with the plastic surgeon. This week, I’m scheduled to see the radiologist. After the treatment, regular check-ups and tests every six months are essential. I’m still dealing with scar tissue, which is the only annoying thing I’m coping with now. And, of course, there are some symptoms of early menopause that I entered because of chemo, which might come back…or not. But the cancer? It’s gone!
After finishing the chemo, the cancer had shrunk to less than half its original size. Following the surgery (a lumpectomy and breast reduction), they called me with the results, and it was on my birthday – what a gift! I was cancer-free!! Even though I needed one more month of radiation and completed immune therapy, which I finished in August. And when I completed that journey, I got to ring the bell for the third time. I joked that whenever I see a bell, I ring it!
Right after I finished the whole treatment, I experienced some moments of depression, which I hadn’t felt during the 12 months of treatment. I guess it’s because I was now processing all the fear I had set aside. When I was in treatment, I felt like a lioness. Afterwards, I felt more like a scaredy cat! But now, I’m feeling great!
LATINA COOL: Having braved this journey, you’ve dedicated yourself to advocating for women’s health and emphasizing the importance of preventive measures. What is the core message you wish to convey to women worldwide, in the hopes of making a difference?
RITA: During my treatment, I decided to share my journey on my social media. I documented every single step. I posted videos, provided updates about the treatment, and shared all the additional activities I engaged in to aid my recovery, such as acupuncture and daily exercise. I doubled my protein intake for each stage of the treatment, which was highly recommended by my oncologists. I also emphasized the importance of taking care of your mental well-being. I resumed therapy, prayed extensively, and had fun with my mom during a few trips. I tried to focus on my healing in every possible way.
My core message is simple: believe in your inner power! Follow the instructions, go the extra mile, and maintain your faith! Many people expressed their amazement at my determination. As I mentioned, I felt like a lioness during the treatment. Sure, I cried at times, but most of the time, I was an unwavering believer.
Additionally, I always stress how vital it is to ask for help and support; you don’t have to go through it alone. This was a challenging lesson for me, but I’m grateful I did.
LATINA COOL: Many women, unfortunately, find themselves on a similar journey as yours. Could you recommend any trustworthy sources or organizations where they can gather more information and support to combat the disease more effectively?
RITA: As I mentioned, I was quite fortunate to have a supportive team taking care of me. I received assistance from all directions. I even had a dietitian who provided valuable information about protein intake. My advice would be to seek a second opinion at the beginning of your journey. I did this, and the second doctor I consulted in Brazil (online) advised me to trust my team here, as the treatment I was receiving was the best course of action. I diligently read the comprehensive book they provided, which contained all the essential information I needed. I tried to avoid relying on Google for information, as it can be overwhelming. Additionally, I gathered valuable insights and support from other breast cancer survivors.
As I mentioned earlier, I incorporated various additional tools into my treatment, including acupuncture, therapy, faith, exercise, a balanced diet, and moments of joy. Furthermore, I found helpful resources such as the American Institute for Cancer Research website, which my dietitian recommended, and the Breast Cancer website, developed by Grand Master Lu, which provides a perspective on breast cancer from the standpoint of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
LATINA COOL: Finally, Rita, reflecting on your journey, how has battling breast cancer shaped your perspective on life, relationships, and your future ambitions?
RITA: Oh, wow! Every cancer survivor I spoke to told me that this journey would transform me in many ways, and I couldn’t agree more. It has indeed changed me profoundly. Above all, it has reinforced the importance of living authentically. Life is short, and if you find yourself doing something that doesn’t align with your true self, or that doesn’t resonate with your calling, it’s essential to reevaluate and make changes. The feeling of being stuck in life, of not pursuing what truly ignites your passion, can contribute to a sense of stagnation, which is something we must strive to avoid. Let’s keep the waters moving!
Sandra Ortiz Juárez estudió Ciencias de la Comunicación en su natal México y obtuvo una maestría en Periodismo Audiovisual en España. Ha trabajado en radio, televisión y en medios digitales como AOL Latino, Mamás Latinas y en las revistas Siempre Mujer y Ser Padres, donde se desempeñó como directora digital. Ha entrevistado a famosos como Carolina Herrera, Isabel Toledo, Natalia Jiménez, Luis Fonsi, William Levy, entre muchas otras personalidades. En sus ratos libres le gusta bailar y experimentar en la cocina. Se confiesa adicta al internet y al sushi.