Who she is: Since July 2007, Maria Aguilera battled a rare form of cancer, metastatic leiomyosarcoma, which had spread to her lungs and spine. “My left leg was giving me great pain, and I had seen a neurologist who ordered an MRI, which is how we found out,” she said when we interviewed her in December 2011.
What she does: “Those early days were very dark, and different treatments over the last five years have taken me back there now and then,” she shared. “I don’t think you ever make peace with it, but I have come to accept the ‘new normal,’ as they say.”
Why she does it: “Admittedly, 2011 was a very hard year in terms of major surgeries, multiple rounds of radiation, and two different chemotherapies. I will be continuing a harsh chemotherapy into 2012, and hoping for some stability so that I can stretch whatever time I have left. This isn’t really courage. I have no choice but to move forward every day for my children and my family.”
WAGING WAR ON CANCER
By Hope Katz Gibbs, Author
Truly Amazing Women
“Hi, Friends. I didn’t want the week to get away without wishing you a great Christmas, Hanukkah, and awesome New Year,” begins Maria Aguilera in a mid-December entry on her CaringBridge page.
“I am writing this despite feeling like a truck has run over my body … again and again and again. I wish I felt better but this chemo reminds me of the first protocol I did where days would pass and I wouldn’t even know it. I am hoping I can come out of this hole like I did last time. Of course, Ricardo and the boys are super nurturing and supportive. My parents are here cooking, etc., and helping things run smoothly, as always.
“None of these guys seem to ever catch a break. Boy, do I feel bad about that. I know. You are going to tell me that they want to and I didn’t bring this upon myself, but boy when you are feeling sicker than sick, all these feelings come out. I will be checking with the doc on Thursday and already know I am in desperate need of a transfusion. Thanks to all of you for showing me such amazing support over the years. I only hope that the new year brings what is best for my family—and you. Love, Maria.”
And just before the New Year, she wrote:
“I want to wish you a very happy and healthy 2012! As for me, I had a very nice Christmas Eve with my family and was grateful to be released from the hospital that morning. I had been readmitted because of severe breathlessness and was found to need a blood transfusion (I knew it).
“The blood has perked me up a bit but still have this persistent cough. They did another CT while in the hospital to rule out any lung clots and my lung tumors still continue to grow. I now have a tumor on my left kidney as well. Not great news.
“I am still hoping that this new chemo does something to either shrink the tumors or stabilize them. I have to admit I am getting more and more frightened by the pace of growth in the last several months. Please continue to keep my boys, all three, and my family in your prayers. Love, Maria”
That entry was written five years after Maria learned she had a rare form of cancer. Her friends follow each message she writes on CaringBridge with interest, as all are spirited cheerleaders for the woman who has always been a devoted wife, mother, and friend.
My family met Maria, her husband Ricardo, and their two sons, Alex, 14, and Nick, 13, in 2000, the year we moved into their Northern Virginia neighborhood. Like all those who know and love this family, we have watched their courageous fight, and have felt awed by their strength.
My husband Mike and I often talk about what we would do in a similar situation. Would we have the ability, and enough stamina, to wage war against a life-threatening illness? The answers are personal, and no doubt are different for each of us.
But for Maria, the answer was easy. “I have done the only thing I can do,” she told me when I asked if she’d consider being our January 2012 Truly Amazing Woman. “I’ll do it,” she said. “But I don’t think I’m amazing.”
This is a common response from many of the women we have profiled in Be Inkandescent magazine’s Truly Amazing Women column, and on our website for our upcoming book project. Of course, we beg to differ. These woman have all been featured because they meet our basic criteria of “making strides and changing lives.” Maria tops the list.
Following is our Q&A with Maria Aguilera, whose strength, courage, and perseverance are sure to amaze you.
Tell us about your illness, and how it was first diagnosed.
Maria: I was diagnosed in July 2007 with metastatic leiomyosarcoma which had already spread to my lungs and spine. My left leg was giving me great pain, and I had seen a neurologist who ordered an MRI, which is how we found out.
Leiomyosarcoma is a cancer of smooth muscle cells that make up the involuntary muscles, which are found in most parts of the body. It is very rare and chemo-resistant.
Be Inkandescent: What was your initial reaction?
Maria: My initial reaction was deep despair. All I could think of was my boys, then ages 8 and 10, and how they needed a mom. I didn’t think I would make it past the six-month prognosis they had originally given me, and my heart ached for my husband and sons.
Be Inkandescent: Do you and your husband, Ricardo, and your two boys, cope with your illness in different ways?
Maria: We are very honest with the boys. We tell them results after every scan. They know there is no cure, and that my situation will start to worsen. But they know I am doing everything I can to be here for them.
My husband is an amazing person who not only is my cheerleader, but has become the rock the boys depend on.
Be Inkandescent: When you look back on those first life-changing days now, so many years later, what is your take on those early days? How have your thoughts on the situation changed over the years?
Maria: Those early days were very dark, and different treatments over the last five years have taken me back there now and then. I don’t think you ever make peace with it, but I have come to accept the “new normal,” as they say.
My movement is limited, I don’t have a lot of energy, and the pain can be debilitating at times, but I am still here and that’s what counts. I tell myself that every day.
Be Inkandescent: Given all of the surgeries and treatments that you have endured, tell us to what you attribute your strength.
Maria: I gather my strength from my boys—my major motivators—and my husband. My family has also been a great source of strength. Though they are older, my parents have changed their lives because of this and spend about half of their year with us to help out, traveling from New York City often. I also couldn’t do this without my friends and neighbors. I often kid that it takes a village to raise an Aguilera boy.
Be Inkandescent: What is the biggest hurdle you face day to day?
Maria: The biggest hurdle I face day to day is the knowledge that each treatment will debilitate me more each time. I have to think of the possible greater good.
Be Inkandescent: What joys have you experienced over the past few years?
Maria: This experience has certainly put my life in perspective. I am now more mindful of every minute. I take nothing for granted. My husband changed jobs and careers to spend more time with us and be home more for the boys. Being together for dinner every day brings me great joy. It’s not something we had before. In the last five years, we have traveled to much of the United States, including Alaska, and created great memories. I am not sure that I can continue traveling, but hope these memories last a lifetime.
Be Inkandescent: What is next for you, in terms of your treatment in 2012?
Maria: 2011 was a very hard year in terms of major surgeries, multiple rounds of radiation, and two different chemotherapies. I will be continuing a harsh chemotherapy into 2012, and hoping for some stability so that I can stretch whatever time I have left.
Be Inkandescent: Sometimes, as a friend or family member, it’s not always easy to know what to say to someone whom you care about, whom you know is suffering. What advice would you give others when it comes to saying the right—or wrong—thing?
Maria: For me personally, there is no wrong thing to say. To know that a friend cares enough to call or say that they are thinking of my family is worth its weight in gold. I know that this concern and care is genuine and will help my family no matter what happens.
Be Inkandescent: You and I have talked several times about what it means to be “Truly Amazing,” and each time you deny that this accolade describes you. While we respectfully beg to differ, what do you want us to know about what it means to find your courage in the face of adversity?
Maria: This isn’t really courage. I have no choice but to move forward every day for my children and my family.
CaringBridge provides free websites that connect people experiencing a significant health challenge to their family and friends, making each health journey easier. CaringBridge is powered by generous donors.
CaringBridge websites offer a personal and private space to communicate and show support, saving time and emotional energy when health matters most. The websites are easy to create and use. Authors add health updates and photos to share their story while visitors leave messages of love, hope, and compassion in the guestbook.
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Learn more about CaringBridge, at www.caringbridge.org.