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Profiles of Courage

In a tribute to the power of family and friends, three breast cancer survivors talk about their personal journey with the disease, and the people who walked every step of it with them.

FROM LEFT Scott, Anna, Karin, Jake, and Abe Wheeler

Go Pink
Komen Orange County’s Pink Tie Ball
takes place on Mother’s Day weekend,
on Saturday, May 11, lakeside at
Lake Mission Viejo. To attend or for
sponsorship opportunities, contact
Stacy Davis. For more information
on breast cancer, mammograms and
on Komen, visit the organization’s website.
Stacy Davis  ::  714.957.9157 Ext. 34
:: komenoc.org

They are mothers, wives, friends, and siblings. They are also the faces of breast cancer – survivors who have battled this devastating disease at least once, sometimes twice, and they are determined to never have to do it again. And despite their diverse backgrounds and varied stories, these survivors have one thing in common: They pulled through their darkest days with the support of those closest to them.

Estela Riela
Two-time breast cancer survivor and chair of the 2013 Komen Pink Tie Ball

It’s been seven years, but Jessica Riela still tears up when the topic of her mother’s breast cancer comes up.

The story went like this: It was 2006 and Jessica was returning home from college in Chicago to celebrate Mother’s Day with her mom, Estela Riela. They were supposed to go to brunch; instead, her mother and father, Sam, sat her down at the kitchen table and told Jessica that her mother had breast cancer – for a second time. “I couldn’t breathe,” says Jessica. “I was crying all night, and yeah, this time, I thought she was going to die.”

Estela’s older daughter, Jordana Chapman, had a different reaction. “I was never scared she was going to die,” says Chapman, who is expecting her first child with her husband, Nick. “It’s a hard thing to see a family member that you care for and love struggling and see them deteriorate before your very eyes, but I knew there was going to be an upswing at some point.”

For Estela’s part, she wasn’t thinking about how or if she was going to survive; she worried instead about how her family would get on without her as she went through the next year-plus of chemotherapy, surgeries and recovery. “I was thinking, ‘What is [Sam] going to do?’” she says. “It was all mainly about my children – them needing their mother for everything. I wasn’t even thinking about me.”

This wasn’t her first time. Estela had had breast cancer before. She was first diagnosed in 1994 after a mammogram found a lump. She had it removed, and then underwent several weeks of radiation. She thought she was going to die. She wondered if she would be here to see her girls grow up, graduate from high school and college, get married, have their own children.

This time, in 2006, it was different. The cancer was HER2-positive, a very aggressive form of breast cancer that had already invaded a lymph node. Estela was scheduled immediately for intensive chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. But there was a lucky break: Herceptin, a drug that targets HER2-positive cancers, had recently come onto the market, and Estela was a candidate for treatment. Herceptin was integrated into her chemotherapy. “The chemo I had was the most aggressive kind,” says Estela. “I lost my hair, I was very sick. The only way I could do it was by taking one day at a time, one minute at a time sometimes. I tried to make the best out of it – it was the only way I could deal with it.”

Sam took Estela for her first chemotherapy treatment, and Chapman would go when her work schedule permitted. Jessica, who had cancelled a semester abroad to study in Rome, flew in once a month from Chicago so she could be part of the process and physically see her mother’s condition. Other times, a friend would go with her and they would get a private room – not to hide sounds of despair, but to avoid disturbing others with their laughter, conjured as a distraction from the realities of catheters and cancer drugs. Later, when Jessica was home, Estela let her daughter shave her head as her hair began to fall out. “It was a very emotional moment,” says Estela. “She put makeup on me, and luckily, I guess I have a pretty good shaped head – it didn’t look bad!” Jessica took her picture, framed it and gave it to her mother for Christmas, but it’s nowhere to be found in the Riela house.

“It actually bothered my husband to see that,” says Estela, of the photo of her with a shaved head.

She turns to Sam. “He aged,” she says. “You changed, actually.”

“It’s hard to be jovial and happy if it’s not in your heart,” says Sam. “But I didn’t think you were going to die. Maybe my way of dealing with it was that if I thought you were going to die, I was going to fall apart.”

Sam didn’t fall apart. He has taken his experience as the spouse of a survivor and used it to educate other men going through a similar period, or even just as encouragement that there is someone who understands the helplessness and fear that husbands and fathers feel, but don’t always share. “It’s a very lonely place to be, and it’s very lengthy,” says Sam. “The obvious thing in this journey is that men are left on the sidelines, and it’s very dark, but at the same time, you have a family and you must be strong and carry the burden of keeping everybody positive. Looking back today, I’m not sure how I survived it; in the moment, I was in shock.”

Seven years later, he’s co-chairing the Pink Tie Ball, a fundraising gala for the Orange County Affiliate of Susan G. Komen, alongside his wife. He has also been chosen this year as a Komen Pink Tie Guy, a group of seven men who are ambassadors for breast cancer awareness in the community. “It’s been a real honor for the two of us,” says Sam of his and Estela’s involvement in the Pink Tie Ball. “We’re committed to the success of this ball, not for the ball itself, but for the outcome of how much money we can generate for the cure.”

Estela’s journey didn’t stop when she finished chemo, however. Nor did it stop when no cancer was found in the samples of her breast tissue. Or when she lost her hair. Or when she decided to undergo a double mastectomy that left her with an open wound that didn’t close for six months. And it hasn’t stopped since. While Herceptin played a significant role in saving her life, it’s never certain that the cancer won’t return; there is no lifelong cure for the disease, so the question remains. “They say when you have this cancer, you can’t say you are ever cured,” says Estela. “But they give a high percentage [of non-recurrence]. Many years have to go by to know.”

To dream the impossible dream / To fight the unbeatable foe / To bear with unbearable sorrow / To run where the brave dare not go

So sang Don Quixote in the musical Man of La Mancha. It’s the inspiration for this year’s Pink Tie Ball, called The Quest. For Estela, the lyrics speak to every person who has battled cancer – those who have lost the battle, those who have won it and those who are currently in it. “[Don Quixote] went out to right the wrongs of the world, and he followed the star,” says Estela. “This is the journey of every breast cancer survivor – the star is the cure and we want to reach it. We will follow it, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far, until we reach the unreachable star.”

That one man, scorned and covered with scars / Still strove, with his last ounce of courage / To reach the unreachable star

Like many cancer survivors, Estela is covered in scars – from her catheter insertion site, her surgeries and her breast reconstruction. But her scars are nothing to hide; they are, in fact, her badges of honor, and she wears them proudly. “At the Pink Tie Ball, my gown is strapless and my scars may peek through,” she says. “People sometimes feel like I have to cover the scars because there’s this thing about perfection and I say, ‘No, that’s my scar of courage, it’s my battle wound, I’m proud of it.’”

“My story is the story of many,” says Estela. “We are all warriors in this battle against cancer.”

Sonia Briseño
Breast cancer survivor and the face of Komen’s national marketing campaign

The next time you’re driving next to a bus and see an ad for Susan G. Komen, take a look at the face: It’s a beautiful one, a Latina one, with dark hair and a strong expression. That’s Sonia Briseño. She looks like she could conquer the world, and if you ask her, she did. By beating breast cancer.

If you ask her daughters, Fernanda, 14, and Alondra, 12, they’d agree. They’ll also tell you that her strong expression isn’t just a face she put on for an ad campaign. It’s the face of their mother, the superhero, who took care of them while she was a single mom battling stage two breast cancer, undergoing chemo and working part-time at a restaurant in Santa Ana to support them. Alondra, bursts into tears at the memory.

“She’s a strong woman,” she says. And then, turning to her mother, “I always looked up to you.”

“She always told us everything would be fine,” says Fernanda. “She was always really positive.”

Because she didn’t have health insurance in 2008, at the time she discovered a lump in her breast, Sonia made her way through a web of confusing health care restrictions and limitations, eventually going to Mexico to get a mammogram and an ultrasound for a diagnosis. When she returned to the U.S., the tests had to be redone, so her cousin did some research and pointed her in the direction of a Huntington Beach clinic that did mammograms for women under 40 (many clinics don’t offer this service). Ultimately, Briseño was led to Komen, which helped her enroll in the Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program (BCCTP), a state-provided insurance offered through the Department of Health Care Services. Over the next month and a half, she visited doctors and specialists to get her treatment started, and she underwent chemotherapy over the course of the next six months. She also decided to undergo a complete mastectomy since the cancer had spread throughout her breast.

What Briseño got out of all of this was gratefulness – gratefulness that she caught her breast cancer early and that Komen exists to help people exactly like her. She also gained an awareness of the plight of many more women like her. “There are so many women suffering in the Latino communities from breast cancer,” she says. “And because Komen helped me, I try to give back what I got. I give my hours, my time – whatever is in my hands to give back, I do it with all my heart. When people support Komen and donate, it’s for women like me and other ones that now have a chance to live.”

Another thing Briseño got out of her journey with breast cancer? Her husband and stepson, Moses. While Briseño was undergoing chemotherapy, she worked at a restaurant in Santa Ana that Jose went to regularly. She was bald and sick a lot of the time, but Jose didn’t notice her physical attributes – he noticed her spirit and determination. “I was like, ‘How can somebody be doing this?’” he says. “It was a wow moment. She was bald, but that wasn’t what caught my eye. It was her personality. People are scarred by the process, but that isn’t what makes you who you are.”

Briseño knew that – she knew that she wasn’t defined by breast cancer. If anything, she is determined to put her mark on the disease, to define it for herself. She’s planning on writing a book about her experience that she hopes will inspire people going through a similar struggle, and she talks to other women every chance she gets about the importance of taking care of themselves so they can take care of others – their children, their spouses, their families. “My journey was not easy,” she says. “But it was not the end.”

Karin Wheeler
Breast cancer survivor and wife of Pink Tie Guy Scott Wheeler

For some diagnosed with breast cancer, the news doesn’t come entirely as a surprise – they had a feeling; it ran in their family; something just wasn’t right.

For Karin Wheeler, that was not the case. For her, the diagnosis came like a speeding freight train – one that came out of nowhere, hitting her in the chest like a ton of bricks.

In 2008, at 43 years old, she went in for a routine mammogram fully expecting the cordial conclusion: “You’re perfectly fine – see you again next year!” No one in her family had ever had any type of cancer, and even when the technician homed in on a particular area, she wasn’t worried. “I knew I had dense breast tissue, so I didn’t panic when they needed more pictures,” says Karin. But when the scope stopped, hovering above the same area over and over, a tinge of worry turned into genuine concern. In the amount of time it took to complete the mammogram, she had gone from a breezy “just another mammogram” to asking herself the terrifying question: “What if? What if I have breast cancer?”

The mammogram had spotted something, and a biopsy was scheduled for a week later. Her husband, Scott, the busy CFO of Costa Mesa-based Experian Americas, accompanied her. “While I was lying on the biopsy table, wondering how painful this [procedure] was going to be, Scott took my hand and began to tell me a story of someone we once knew who had gotten in touch with him,” says Karin. “He had saved his hilarious update for just that moment, knowing that I would need it.”

She would need it then, and for almost every moment of the months of radiation, chemotherapy and recovery that followed. Karin was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (estrogen receptor- and progesterone receptor-negative, as well as HER2-negative), an often-aggressive form of the disease that occurs with higher frequency in younger women. It was bad news on the level of worst-news-one-can-receive, but the worst part for Karin wasn’t what came after; it was what came before: the waiting. “We waited and waited for the results, says Karin. “Of course, it happened to be a holiday weekend. I pretty much stalked the doctor, calling every hour for the results. Finally, at 6 p.m., when I thought that I would have to be satisfied with not knowing that day, the nurse practitioner called and said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s bad news.’ I will never forget that moment and where every single person was in the house and what they were doing. Things started moving in slow motion.”

Because she did what most people do when they get bad health news – research it on the Internet – Karin was paralyzed by fear of her diagnosis (“I was pretty much ordering a casket, pronto,” she says), but after she went to bed, hoping it had all been a dream, Scott stayed up late into the night, doing the research that Karin couldn’t confront. “I woke up to a husband with a secondary degree in breast cancer,” she says.

An aggressive treatment plan was recommended, including a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Chemotherapy was “hard and fast,” beginning in February 2008 and ending five months later in July. The months that followed, however, weren’t all filled with darkness, despair and chemo-induced sickness and hair loss (although there was that; “at the risk of sounding vain, I really did hate not having hair,” she says). Karin looks back on it as a special time of family bonding and personal and spiritual growth. While she wasn’t able to be involved in her kids’ lives to the extent that she had been before (the Wheelers have three children – Abe and Jake, 17, and Anna, 15), she saw it as a time during which Scott could experience all that she had been able to take part in with her children over the years. “Crummy things happen, but there is good in all situations,” she says. “Looking back at my life, I realize how much more of my character has been shaped through hard situations as opposed to the easy ones. I am now able to relate, and even help, those who follow in my footsteps.”

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