Voices on Cancer is an award-winning Cancer.Net Blog series where advocates share their stories and the lessons they have learned about being a cancer advocate. Daniel G. Garza has been a patient leader for over 20 years, speaking publicly about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), anal cancer, and mental health. Daniel shares his story through campaigns such as Positively Fearless, works with the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC) as a language justice consultant, and chairs the Client Advisory Committee for Radiant Health Centers. Through his company, Lilmesican Productions, Inc., Daniel and his partner, Christian, produce livestream content that is geared towards adding positive messages to the HIV, cancer, and LGBTQ+ communities. Daniel is also a certified life coach with a focus on spirituality, an actor, and a published author. View Daniel’s disclosures.
My patient advocacy story
Have you ever had a gut feeling about something, where you knew something was going to happen but you didn’t know how or where? Not that you were manifesting it, but that it was bound to happen. For me, that was how I felt about cancer.
I am a recovering alcoholic, drug addict, and former smoker. When I thought about cancer, I thought for sure it would be liver cancer, kidney cancer, or lung cancer that I would be diagnosed with someday. But while I was ready to hear the word “cancer” in my life, I never thought it would be anal cancer. To be honest, I didn’t even know anal cancer existed. It wasn't something my friends, doctors, or any gay man I knew talked about. Even during my 14 years of living with HIV before my cancer diagnosis and becoming an advocate for the HIV community, I had never even heard about it.
When I first started feeling odd, I knew that my body was telling me something was wrong. I went to the doctor and learned I had a hernia that required emergency surgery. During my follow-up, we discovered the cancerous growth.
My diagnosis was delivered on May 5, 2015, which is Cinco de Mayo. I met my boyfriend, Christian, on May 9, 2012. We were going to have a taco and nacho night and celebrate our almost 3-year anniversary. On the way to the doctor’s office, I was still going over the recipe for dinner. I had no intention of letting anything get in the way of having our dinner. It was also Tuesday, so this was a Taco Tuesday Cinco de Mayo anniversary celebration!
I have spent most of my life with the feeling that I was put on this earth to share a message. When I was given my cancer diagnosis, I knew I had to share it with the people who follow me on social media. I said to Christian as we were driving home, “I’m going to make a video when we get home.” And he replied without even looking at me, “Of course you are.”
I felt there was a need to share my journey, the whole of it. So, I shared 30 days of my journey on YouTube. I did not hold back. I had seen videos of other influencers and truly hated the “nothing is wrong” stories. Something was wrong—very wrong. I had cancer. I wanted my videos to be transparent so people could see that cancer hurts. It hurts mentally, physically, and spiritually. It hurts so much that I wanted others to feel the pain.
During the moments when I was hurting, I wanted Christian to feel it with me. I would get snappy, angry, and mean. This is where he, knowing me so well, helped in the healing process. He would let me blow up, break down, and then put myself together again as I needed. I have found that is one of the gifts from cancer: it pushes you to fall apart so you can put yourself together with only the best of you. I was able to leave behind the quitter parts, the broken parts, and the weaker parts so that I could build myself with the fighter, the stronger, and the more resilient parts. This is what people see when they look at me now.
Working toward more equitable cancer care
For me, there was a sense of “What now?” after I heard the word “remission.” I was no longer a cancer patient. I didn’t need a caregiver. Now, I was a cancer survivor. As much as other cancer survivors had told me what they went through, I had no idea what to do next. I needed, and still do at times, to figure out how to not pull the “pity look” from people when I say the words “cancer survivor.” I want to tell them, “I survived. Don’t feel sorry for me. Celebrate that I survived.”
When I was invited to participate at the Advancing the Science of Cancer in Latinos Conference, I felt intimidated because most of the attendees were scientists, researchers, and health care professionals. However, when I was at the conference, I spoke to the folks from Count Me In, a nonprofit organization that empowers people with cancer to share their health data to accelerate cancer research. I was amazed by what they were doing and knew I wanted to be part of it. After exchanging emails and having some video calls, I was able to record a video in Spanish that Count Me In shared to help reach the Latin community.
For me, becoming an advocate with Count Me In was important because of its focus on including people with cancer from underrepresented communities in cancer research, including those from Latino communities. This is especially crucial given the significant barriers many Latino people with cancer face in accessing health care and participating in research studies. I was excited by the idea that by gathering data from a diverse population, researchers can better develop treatments and therapies that are more effective for everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
By sharing my story and working with organizations whose goals align with making cancer care more equitable, I hope to raise awareness about the importance of including diverse patient populations in research studies.