Rebecca Esparza was only 30 years old when she received news that would change her life completely. After waking up in her new home in immense pain, she decided to visit her doctor. Esparza was no stranger to pains in her side, she had experienced chronic fibroid tumors for years, but something about this felt different to her.
After visiting with her doctor and not agreeing with a diagnosis of homesickness and depression, Esparza came back to what she knew. She set up an appointment with a former doctor of hers in San Antonio.
“September 11th had just happened, “ explained Esparza. “The doctors in Washington D.C. felt that maybe I was just homesick and traumatized by the events of that year.”
Her doctor in San Antonio seemed concerned at her visit. He had performed surgeries on her before and knew what normal was for Esparza’s body. This was not it.
“The doctor told me ‘I saw you in April, now its September and you look like you are three months pregnant,' ” Esparza said.
The doctor told her that there was only one thing he knew of that could grow that fast and it was ovarian cancer. For 30-year-old Esparza, this news was not good. Even worse was when the doctor told her exploratory surgery was needed.
Esparza was in the middle of some projects with clients, she is a freelance writer, so she opted to put off the surgery until November to give her time to finish. The surgery took place on Thanksgiving day, 2001. While the surgeons had suspected ovarian cancer, they hadn’t anticipated the spread of the disease. The cancer had spread to some lymph nodes and other tissues and surgeons made the “life-saving” decision to preform a radical hysterectomy on Esparza. All of this happened without Esparza’s knowledge, so she woke up to her parents crying at her bedside.
“When I woke up, my parents were holding each other at the foot of my bed and weeping quietly. My first thought was ‘Oh, crap, that’s not good. I think I’ll just go back to sleep’,” she said.
Over the next few days, Esparza learned what had taken place in that operating room. Her parents gently broke the news to her. She would never be able to conceive children of her own and she was facing stage 2 ovarian cancer. Having just decided to forego insurance while working for herself, Esparza’s savings were already depleted and her fight had just begun. A social worker started to come and visit with Esparza and to encourage her to get “her affairs in order.”
“Looking at the doctor’s faces that were coming in and out of my hospital room, they were sad. It was a dark and scary time for me,” Esparza said.
After a couple of weeks, doctors determined the specific type of ovarian cancer that Esparza was battling. Esparza had germ cell ovarian cancer, a very rare form ovarian cancer, and a tough one to beat. Only five percent of ovarian cancer is classified as germ cell and this variation has the lowest survivability of all the gynecological cancers.
During the time between the surgery and when Esparza began her chemotherapy treatments, her cancer had progressed to stage four, also known as end stage ovarian cancer. Chemotherapy also presented Esparza with a new challenge, how to pay for her care. Esparza had recently opted out of insurance, due to being self-employed, and was now being turned down because of pre-existing gynecological conditions, those being the chronic fibroid tumors she had suffered earlier in life. With her savings depleted and no insurance willing to take her, Esparza began to navigate the web of social services and found the Nueces County Hospital District (NCHD). To use their services, Esparza had to basically declare herself indigent, give up her freelancing career and move in with her parents.
“I used the NCHD because they were my only option, but they saved my life,” Esparza said.
In the beginning of Esparza’s chemotherapy, her cancer was not responding to treatment. The whole idea of chemotherapy was a scary one.
“My first day of chemo, the nurse walked in in a full hazmat suit. I asked her why she was dressed that way and she told me that if one drop of the chemo drugs got on her skin, they would eat right through her skin. And I was thinking ‘You’re going to put that in my body’,” said Esparza.
Eventually, the cancer began to respond to treatment and Esparza was in full remission in October of 2002. The previous year had been a very hard one, and now Esparza was in a daze. She had spent so long preparing to die and now she had to figure out how to live.
“I was left thinking I’ve lost all my money, my savings are gone; what do I do now,” Esparza explained. “That’s when I heard about cancer advocacy.”
Discovering this opportunity gave Esparza a new lease on life, something she was in need of.
“God kept me here for a reason. To give others hope. Nothing is as desperate as it may seem,” said Esparza.
With this new vision and with a drive to help others going through a battle, Esparza and her fiancé started a cancer support group for those who were dealing with the many variations of the disease. Esparza explained that while there were support groups for those dealing with both prostrate and breast cancer, there wasn’t a group for just cancer in general. Through this, Esparza met many different people, all of whom had a different, yet familiar story to tell.
“This group allowed us to heal ourselves and, in the process, heal others,” said Esparza.
After 12 years after launching this group, Esparza and her fiancé, have left heading the group and she has begun to pursue full-time advocacy. Esparza is now back to freelance writing and makes frequent trips to Washington D.C., where her journey began, to advocate for cancer survivors and cancer research.
“Meeting with politicians on Capitol Hill lets them know that we will hold them accountable,” said Esparza. “We chose to vote them into office and we can choose to vote them out.”
In her free time, which she prefers to limit, Esparza dotes on her two nephews and spends time with her family.
“Sometimes I just pinch myself, thinking ‘wow, all this time has passed and I’m still alive,'” she said. “I’m thankful to be alive and breathing.”