image of Breast Cancer Survivor Kristin Ozuna that links to the feature on her in the Daily News Think Pink Special Section that's sponsored by UTMB Health

'Trust yourself'

Kristin knew something wasn't right. Her life depended on trusting her gut

”You’re too young for cancer.”

That’s what Kristin Ozuna’s gynecologist told her when she went to him with a concern in October 2020.

Breast Cancer survivor Kristin Ozuna with short hair during her breast cancer journey

A newlywed with two toddlers, she had stopped breastfeeding two years prior, but there was liquid oozing from her left breast.

“I could slap him right now,” Ozuna said of her gynecologist in her then-hometown of Brownsville.

Ozuna pushed for a mammogram, which came back normal. Still, she worried because she has fibrous breasts that could camouflage a tumor.

The nurse advised her to get annual mammograms.

Fast forward to September 2021 when she and her husband were living in Seabrook and Ozuna found a lump in her left breast. She needed to get it checked out, but insurance and medical costs were a problem.

That’s when she found UTMB Health and the mammogram — and biopsy that unearthed a tumor and identified it as stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma.

Ozuna’s first thought was to go to a different institution because of its reputation as a top cancer treatment center. But even with the help of a patient advisor, she couldn’t secure a way to pay for her evaluation treatment there.

“I didn’t qualify because I wasn’t working at the time and they don’t do any of those special programs,” she said. “And I didn’t have the funds to pay out of pocket because one of the consultations, I believe she told me, was like $16,000.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said, explaining that she broke down in the office and the patient advocate directed her to The Rose Breast Imaging Center, which helped her connect with a special Medicaid program that covered breast cancer care.

She then found her way back to UTMB.

“From there, everything happened so fast,” Kristin said. “No time was wasted.

“I want to say how much I adore the doctors and nurses there at UTMB,” she said. “Dr. Colleen Silva was very understanding and she told me — and this is why I fell in love with them — that cancer was not a death sentence and I’m so lucky that I found it by myself right away and that I trusted my body and they were going to do everything in their power to help me.”

UTMB oncologist Dr. Nabiha Aziz recommended a highly aggressive form of chemotherapy

to battle Ozuna’s highly aggressive form of cancer.

After 16 rounds of chemo, her tumor had shrunk enough to allow for surgery — a double mastectomy. As of late September 2022, she was due for four more months of chemo treatment as a precaution.

From the start, Ozuna was afraid of the things most cancer patients fear — losing her hair, losing intimacy in her marriage, even frightening her children. But as grueling as her journey was, cancer was “a blessing in disguise.”

“It brought my family and friends and me much closer,” she said. “I had family and friends setting aside their own priorities just to come in and cater to me and my family.

“I’m thankful for all of my blessings, including having fun with the wigs and being able to play dress-up with my kids,” she said. “They thought it was great. And I’m thankful for having the energy to do my mommy duties after undergoing surgeries and chemotherapy. And I’m honestly just thankful to UTMB that, you know, they saved my life.”

Ozuna credits a strong devotion to her children as key motivation in her survival.

That, and her faith.

“My faith has gotten a lot deeper. I was just blessed with this inner strength; I knew I had to fight this fight,” she said. “This experience taught me about how brave I am and how strong I am. I didn’t know how strong I was until I had to be strong.”

Ozuna is a big believer in women listening to their bodies and advocating for their health care when something doesn’t seem right. Whether it’s an initial concern or even during treatment, she said, get a second opinion. Or a third. If it means changing course midstream, so be it.

“Don’t ever give up and don’t ever Google either. Trust your doctors but trust yourself and take charge of your own plan,” she said. “If you don’t believe that you’re on a right path, believe in yourself and go with your gut and have faith. Have faith.”

Learn more about UTMB Health’s Breast Health program

This feature first ran as a story in the   2022 Think Pink special section of the Daily News. You can view the full  publication online or download the PDF .