graphic image of featuring a circle frame with headshot of UTMB Breast Health patient Matilda Pettis. The banner features the words "Think Pink" which is the name of a publication in which Matilda's story was featured

Learning to trust the process

Battling breast cancer is not something new for Matilda Pettis.

In 2009, while living in Tennessee, she had a bout she was able to overcome quickly.

“I just needed surgery and then everything was fine,” she said, recounting that her experience back then felt like a fast one.

Fast forward more than a decade to earlier this year. She moved a case of water and thought she pulled a muscle.

But then she realized the lump was getting larger, so she decided to go see her primary care provider for guidance on what to do.

A few phone calls were made, and, by March, she had the biopsy and diagnosis that confirmed she’d need treatment for breast cancer.

However, this time was going to be different than her experience back in 2009 for a few reasons. One, she was in Texas now, which is what helped bring her to UTMB.

“I’m a big believer in God’s divine plan and believe he helped bring me here to encounter the angels I have at the [UTMB Breast Health] clinic,” said Pettis, who had nothing but great things to say about her care team, mentioning everyone from patient navigator Sherry Bogar to her surgical oncologist Dr. Colleen Silva.

headshot image of surgical oncologist Dr. Colleen Silva. She is a brunette with chin-length hair and is wearing her white coat and smiling

This time also was different because some key people were missing from Pettis’s support system.

“I didn’t have my mom this time,” said Pettis, who mentioned her mom was a tremendous help the first round assisting her with things like cooking and cleaning, beyond just moral and emotional support.

Her closest friends and female family members also have been physically absent from a lot of her journey this year, simply because they live out of state, but they’re holding her accountable over the phone, reminding her she’s strong and able to beat this.

“They’ve been so great, especially when I’ve been emotional,” Pettis said. “They’ve told me ‘get it together sis, you’ve done this before and you can do it again.’”

A little more than six months into her current battle, Pettis is doing her best to stay strong and take it day by day. At the time of this interview, she’s undergone a few surgeries and is awaiting word on what the next steps will entail — mainly if she’ll need radiation or not or if she’ll even continue taking the chemo pill she’s been on for a bit.

“I pray there’s no radiation needed,” she said, adding that her experience with the chemo pill has been one with very mild, if any, side effects. Whatever the outcome, Pettis has made her mind up that she will try to stop planning things and instead will just trust the process and the power of prayer.

“Planning was and has always been my coping mechanism,” she said. “Ultimately, you have to have the power of prayer and you have to stay strong because if you break down the entire process will defeat you.

“I’m learning to stop crying, learning to stop trying to take over instead of just going with the flow, trusting that everything has a time and a place,” she said. She’s also learning how to accept kindness, even when it comes from the most unexpected places.

“My coworkers have been so fantastic,” she said. “They worked out a rotation schedule to be with me throughout the day of one of my surgeries. The kindness that’s been extended to me has just been so rewarding.”

Pettis added that the support hasn’t stopped as she’s recovering from her surgery at home.

“They have come here to check on me and told me to call them if I need anything — even just help warming up some food,” she said.

While she’s grateful for the outpouring of support she’s enjoyed from friends and family alike — frequently referencing individuals who have called to check on her and a niece who even came and stayed with her during her first big surgery — she mentioned that it’s been a bit difficult to take it all in without feeling like a burden.

“When you’re by yourself, a part of you almost doesn’t feel worthy of that kind of kindness,” she said. “I’m learning to let people help me and accept when they offer their support.”

As Pettis continues to take each day as it comes, there are two things she’s giving herself permission to plan — trips with her friends and family in the coming years.

“Every year there’s a jazz festival in Mexico,” she said. “My niece and I were talking about it. So next year we’re going.”

Then, looking ahead to 2025, she’s eyeing a full-family cruise around the Mediterranean.

“I’m just thankful I’m alive and able to travel,” she said, adding that she hopes her story brings hope to others facing their own breast cancer battle.

“My main advice for anyone with a new diagnosis is just don’t panic,” she said. “Do what the doctors say and by all means do not go researching by yourself on the internet.”

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 .