I had just celebrated my 30th birthday, completed my master's degree, with honors, was successfully handling two jobs, and together with my husband, beginning to consider what it might be like to be parents.
That's when breast cancer appeared in my life.
With no known family history of breast or any other type of cancer in my family, no history of smoking, and keeping a pretty active lifestyle while performing routine check-ups and breast self-exams, how could I possibly be getting breast cancer at such young age? In a matter of days I learned that, not only did I have breast cancer, but I had one of the most aggressive kinds: the dreaded Triple Negative. Soon after, I also learned that I tested positive for the BRCA mutation. What followed over the next 13 months was a non-stop battle of combined chemotherapies and surgeries. Mercifully, the therapies worked. They got rid of my tumor while reducing my risk for recurrence.
During my treatment, three breast cancer survivors spoke to me about the need for advocates in the fight against breast cancer and how important it was to raise awareness and become active in supporting research. It was then that I decided to join the first of many organizations and boards and serve on the USC Norris Survivorship Advisory Council. Soon after that I was nominated to attend the Project LEAD Institute, hosted by the National Breast Cancer Coalition where, as a scholar, I was trained and taught by talented physicians and researchers from leading institutions including the National Institutes of Health. My life as an advocate had officially begun. From that moment forward, I joined anything that gave me the opportunity to learn and to share what I learned with others.
When I am not advocating for breast cancer or teaching foreign languages to adult immigrants, I work in government relations at a major private university. I love to spend time with my family, and I also devote time to attending cancer support groups. I truly enjoy collaborating. I serve on patient and family boards at several hospitals, meet with representatives of local breast cancer organizations, volunteer for Susan G. Komen, support cancer education outreach in the most underserved areas in South and East Los Angeles, and work as a board member of the Breast Cancer Care and Research Fund. I also participate in the Adolescent and Young Adult program at the hospital where I was treated, serving as a patient advocate and working with medical and research teams there to develop programs and generate ideas that benefit patients at the Children's Hospital of LA and USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. Most recently I had the opportunity to become a member of the Young Survival Coalition and was asked to lead one of their first three support groups in Los Angeles, specifically geared toward helping young women facing breast cancer.
I first learned about the DoD Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) during my Project LEAD training. My NBCC mentor was Chris Norton, an extraordinary advocate from Minnesota who had previously served as a BCRP reviewer. She spoke with us about the program and the impact that advocates could have on the decision making process. We performed several mock grant evaluations with Chris and learned how to maximize our critical thinking skills to better represent the voice of other survivors.
In early 2013 I was nominated to serve as a novice consumer advocate reviewer for BCRP. I was assigned to a terrific mentor advocate who, along with CDMRP staff, guided me into the peer review process and what to expect (or not to expect) from the experience. I traveled to Washington, D.C. and, as soon as I walked into the room, I just knew that this opportunity was a blessing. I felt very intimidated at first, looking around and seeing so many talented researchers and fellow advocates. But soon I became familiar with my peers, with the tenacity of our chairperson, and with the rigorous pace of the grant review process.
What an invaluable experience for anyone who truly wishes to contribute to the fight against breast cancer! At the end of the intensive three-day session, my heart was filled with nothing but hope that all things are possible when people work together for the same mission: To find a cure and eradicate breast cancer.
This BCRP experience allowed me to voice the concerns of the many patients I have met in the organizations I work with. It allowed me to say "yes" and "no" without feeling shy about my very limited scientific knowledge because I realized I was voicing the patient opinion, not just my opinion. Every time I took the microphone I did it thinking of my friends and fellow cancer survivors who have died or are still in the fight against breast cancer, and I did it thinking of those I'd met through outreach programs, and I did it thinking of those less privileged and of those who don't speak English. I did it for all those who have to fight breast cancer more than once, suffering from the side effects of their treatments. I became a consumer advocate reviewer to speak up for those who can't be in the room but who know first-hand what breast cancer is all about.