pink "think pink" banner image that features a bright pink breast cancer awareness ribbon and a round photo frame with a headshot image of dark-haired, smiling woman wearing hoop earrings

Community came together for breast cancer patient

When Stephanie Sanchez, 49, learned she had breast cancer — lobular carcinoma to be exact — she didn’t waste any time feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she leapt into action.

“I’ve never really been a self-pity person,” she said. “Not that I was being nonchalant about the whole thing, I just had the mindset of ‘OK, this is my reality, what do we need to do next?

Just tell me the plan and let’s get to it.’”

However, being uninsured, even landing on a diagnosis at first felt tricky.

“It was probably around 2020 when I first found a small knot in my breast area,” she said. “I didn’t think anything of it because it was small, and I thought it was maybe just a cyst.”

Fast forward six months or so and Sanchez felt the spot again, only this time it was bigger. Knowing she needed to get this checked out, she did her research on the options she had to have a mammogram done. Sanchez was able to get one through the UTMB Mobile Mammography Unit, which, thanks to a $1.4 million grant from the Moody Endowment, was unveiled in 2018 as part of the institution’s Mobile Mammography Program.

Originally launched in 1999, the program aims to reach women across the region just like Sanchez who struggle to know where to turn when something goes wrong with their health.

Sanchez’s mammogram in November 2020 revealed that she did have a mass, and, in February of the following year, she had a biopsy that confirmed it was cancerous. She was diagnosed with stage three invasive lobular carcinoma, as well as metastatic adenocarcinoma, meaning it had spread into the lymph nodes.

“From there I began the journey to get all the testing I needed done,” said Sanchez, who admits being a bit naïve thinking that once she had the diagnosis it would be as simple as getting chemotherapy or having the cancer removed and that would be that.

Sanchez’s experience was unfortunately far from that simple; however, she’s grateful for the people she’s had helping her throughout the process that’s included everything from chemotherapy and a full mastectomy to radiation and now occupational therapy to help with stage one lymphedema.

“Along the way, everything has been explained to me thoroughly,” she said. “I’ve had a great team of people helping me throughout this journey.”

Sanchez is not just appreciative of the health care professionals who have been there for her during this time; she’s also thankful for the loved ones — and even strangers — who have helped support her in her fight against cancer.

“My family is very close and supportive,” she said. “My aunts found ways to support me by having my house cleaned and helping with laundry, while others cooked and financially helped with what they could. We even had a tamalada — a tamale making party — to make tamales to sell as part of a fundraiser to help cover my treatment expenses.”

one male and three women posing, smiling for photo, each wearing gray hats and shirts with pink ribbons and words in support of breast cancer awareness

The outpouring of generosity was something Sanchez said she never would have expected, and she credits it with helping her keep a positive outlook throughout every phase of her battle.

“From the way I was feeling day to day to the immense help I was receiving from the community around me, I don’t think my experience has been as bad as it could have been,” she said.

“Sure, I was sickly some of the time, but I didn’t let it run me or my days.”

Looking back on all she’s endured in recent years, Sanchez has learned the importance not just of positivity, but of slowing down and really listening to her body.

“I’ve always been go, go, go. Busy with home life and work, and I’ve never taken time to take stock of my surroundings and my health,” she said. “I wish I would have listened to my body a lot sooner.”

As Sanchez nears the end of this chapter of her life, she expresses so much gratitude for everyone she’s encountered at UTMB Health along the way, including her surgical oncologist Dr. Colleen Silva.

One of the doctors even took to heart Sanchez’s feedback that the headrests available to patients during radiation treatments were uncomfortable. This particular physician took Sanchez’s concerns and worked to get all new headrests for patients.

Unfortunately, the new amenities didn’t arrive in time for her to use them, but it makes her happy knowing that she’s helping others, even if only in a small way.

“The whole team from the beginning to where I’m at now has just been amazing,” she said. “I don’t know if you would get that anywhere else. UTMB Health is undoubtedly my clinic and hospital of choice.”

Learn more about UTMB Health’s Breast Health program

This feature first ran as a story in the  2023 Think Pink special section  of the Daily News. You can view the full  publication  online or download the PDF .