ASCO in the Community: Parenting While Living With Cancer

May 2, 2019
Claire Smith, ASCO staff

Sara Tejeda is a breast cancer survivor living in Laredo, Texas.

Gary Unzeitig, MD, FACS, is a breast surgeon and principal investigator at Doctor’s Hospital Laredo and is on staff at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.

“Caring for every patient. Learning from every patient.” For ASCO President Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, this is more than just a presidential theme. To put action to words, she went out to local communities to speak with patients, caregivers, and oncology professionals. She and other ASCO members are responding to patients’ concerns and, at the same time, they are learning more about the challenges that exist in getting quality cancer care. These sessions were called “ASCO in the Community: Listening and Learning from Our Patients.” In October 2018, Dr. Bertagnolli visited Laredo, Texas, to join a public breast cancer forum and fashion show to celebrate breast cancer survivors and raise breast cancer awareness. While she was there, she spoke with Dr. Gary Unzeitig and his patient, Sara Tejeda, about her experience with cancer. This interview is adapted from their conversation, which was conducted in both English and Spanish.

Dr. Unzeitig: How many children do you have? 

Sara Tejeda: 5. 

Dr. Unzeitig: The oldest? 

Sara Tejeda: 16. 

Dr. Unzeitig: And the youngest? 

Sara Tejeda: The little girl, that I had when I had cancer, is 3. 

Dr. Unzeitig: So when Sara was diagnosed, it was December, and she was pregnant. And we can give chemotherapy during pregnancy after 3 months. She said, "After the baby's born." So, it was 6 months. And then we started her chemotherapy.

Dr. Unzeitig: What else do you remember? 

Sara Tejeda:  Well, it was really difficult, because I remember my child with a disability was in intensive care in San Antonio, and I had to get better to be able to start treatment. It was really difficult, him being there fighting for his life and me here, also fighting for my life. 

Dr. Bertagnolli: So you were taking care of your family before taking care of yourself?share on twitter

Sara Tejeda: Yes. 

Dr. Unzeitig: Family first. 

Sara Tejeda: When I got out of chemo, I had to take care of my daughter. She was little. I have a son who is 5 now, and my daughter is 3. I got out of chemo and I had to bathe them, take care of them, [and there was no] time to lie down, to feel bad. That helped me, that helped me a lot because really, during all of chemo I didn’t feel bad. My mind was busy with my son, with the little ones, and that helped me. It helped me to keep going to think about them before myself. 

Dr. Unzeitig: But now everything is going well? Do you feel well? 

Sara Tejeda: No, that’s the havoc it caused, pain in my bones. It’s not the same, it’s not the same. But no, I always try to think that I’m fine, I’m alive for my kids, and that’s all that matters. 

Dr. Unzeitig: And hers was a very long process, because first there’s chemotherapy and then they did a nipple-sparing mastectomy, with a temporary implant and then you had radiation, and lastly reconstruction. I do those, the deep flaps, with a group of microvascular plastic surgeons in San Antonio. So that's why I operate there once a month on my patients. I travel there. 

Dr. Bertagnolli: How is your child who was having so much trouble?

Sara Tejeda: He passed away last year.

Dr. Bertagnolli: I am so sorry. 

Sara Tejeda: It was very hard, I mean with the surgeries and all of that, to not be able to be with him as much. He had a nurse, but not being able to be there with him as much. He was 7 years old, so he was older. That’s what hurt me, but now he is better, it was very hard with him, he was suffering so much, he is in a better place. Someday I’ll see him again, but not right now, my kids are too little.  

The doctor says that I have a high pain tolerance, when they give me treatment or do procedures, I never say anything. I had a baby without anesthesia at all, because I didn’t say anything, and I was quiet. The doctor didn’t realize that I didn’t have any anesthesia, he stitched me up and cleaned me up and that’s when he realized and said, “No anesthesia!” 

Dr. Bertagnolli: Wow. So you were strong enough to undergo everything. 

Dr. Unzeitig: Yeah, very strong. And you went to school in Mexico, right? 

Sara Tejeda: Yes. Public accountant. I started school here, I understand English, I can write it, and I do speak it, because when my son was in the hospital—but not a lot, not very well, but I do understand it, I can write it. When my son passed away, I signed up for an accounting class because I also like to study, I like to be educated, I like school a lot. My kids only speak English to me, so I had to study English. There’s a program to do free income tax returns, and I volunteered for that too. 

Dr. Bertagnolli: Fantastic. So giving back too, huh? That's wonderful. Are you going to be in the fashion show tonight? 

Sara Tejeda: Yes. I like to participate because it's something nice after everything, chemo, radiation. It’s nice.

Dr. Bertagnolli: Yeah—we can celebrate you. 

Dr. Unzeitig: Yes. It’s a party, to celebrate their new life. 

In 2018 to 2019, ASCO held a series of ASCO Presidential Town Halls with local groups across the United States to hear from patients, providers, and the general public about real-world barriers to quality cancer care and to talk about ways to provide the best care to every person diagnosed with cancer. These events were free and open to everyone. Learn about this town hall series.

Whether you were able to attend an ASCO Presidential Town Hall near you or not, we welcome comments from patients and caregivers about your experiences with cancer.

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