Resilience Runs in the Family: Two Generations of Breast Cancer Survival

Margarita Okumura and Alma DeVera are breast cancer survivors, CIBC Run for the Cure ambassadors, and my mom and grandma! This weekend, I interviewed them as a part of St. Marcellinus Social Justice League’s initiative to spread awareness about cancer and share the experiences of survivors.

A 2020 advertisement for CIBC Run for the Cure featuring Alma and Margarita.

On Diagnosis and Treatment

Alma’s first diagnosis came in 2003, after finding a lump in her left breast during a routine check-up. She was diagnosed with Stage I cancer caused by a hormone imbalance, which was treated through radiation treatment and Tamoxifen, an estrogen receptor modulator used to treat early-stage breast cancer. Her second diagnosis in 2012 was for Stage IV cancer in her right breast, treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation targeting the area, as well as a double mastectomy. Alma’s third breast cancer diagnosis was in 2020, for which she is receiving ongoing treatment, in the form of daily oral medication and monthly injections.

Margarita’s first diagnosis was in 2014 for Stage 0 breast cancer, treated through mastectomy and reconstruction on her right breast accompanied by Tamoxifen. Margarita’s second diagnosis occurred in 2017, for Stage III cancer. Her second treatment plan included a cycle of six weeks of chemotherapy followed by 21 days of radiation. She is currently taking the oral medication Palbociclib, used to treat metastatic cancer.

Margarita ringing the bell in 2017, signifying the end of her chemotherapy treatments.

On Support Networks

There is no situation in which facing multiple cancer diagnoses — especially late-stage diagnoses — is easy. But Alma and Margarita have never done it alone. In an interview with the Canadian Cancer Society about their experiences with breast cancer, Alma said, “There are many experiences we hope to share with our daughters, but breast cancer is not one of them. I would never choose to travel this road twice, but I’m grateful CCS was there for us both times.” The Canadian Cancer Society and cancer.ca have been important resources for both Alma and Margarita throughout their respective breast cancer journeys, as well as each other’s.

Another essential piece of their support network has been family. Whether physically or emotionally, both their immediate and extended family have supported them through their experiences with breast cancer. Margarita gave examples of the types of support she receives from family, with emotional support including being able to speak to cousins about her struggles and physical support including dropping off home-cooked meals, driving her to appointments, and driving her three children to hockey practice. Speaking of hockey, she said, her childrens’ teams have provided community throughout her journey as well.

Daughter Reyna’s hockey team at the 2019 CIBC Run for the Cure.

According to Margarita, the youth hockey community is unlike any other. She says that they’ve also been a crucial part of her support network, as her childrens’ teammates have provided rides to practice and hearty meals, among many other forms of support for her kids. Through the years, their hockey teams have fundraised for and participated in the CIBC Run for the Cure, as well as participated in tournaments such as the Etobicoke Dolphins’ Pink the Rink showcase, in support of her and of the cause.

On the CIBC Run for the Cure

Alma, Margarita, and their family have been participating in the Run for the Cure since 2003 after Alma’s initial diagnosis, to support a foundation that continues to create awareness and work toward a cure. Four collective diagnoses later, they still look forward to the day of the run every year, as it is a beautiful reminder to them of the amount of support that the cause receives. Alma and Margarita agree that “When attending runs in person, there is an overwhelming feeling of community, of being around people who were in the same situation, of feeling like you were not alone.”

Margarita and daughter Reyna at the Run for the Cure in 2008.
Family and friends at the CIBC Run for the Cure in 2014, after Margarita’s first diagnosis.
Margarita and Alma during the CIBC Run for the Cure, 2020

In 2019, Alma and Margarita were selected to represent the CIBC Run for the Cure campaign, and have been ambassadors ever since, sharing their experiences with breast cancer and participating in the annual runs as a mother-daughter duo along with friends and family.

CIBC’s efforts to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer treatment and, ultimately, a cure, have provided a sense of security for Alma and Margarita. The advancements in their treatments and the rising rate of breast cancer survival are attributed to fundraising efforts such as the Run. In a 2021 interview with City TV, Alma said, “That’s the reason why we’re still here. Because of this research, the treatment is getting better and better.”

On Their New Normal

After a combined five cancer diagnoses, it’s safe to say that Alma and Margarita’s lives are far from normal. However, they’ve accepted that their lives are different, and are embracing their new normal.

To Alma, her new normal is having to consider cancer in everyday decisions. Chronic illness means that she has to take extra care in everything she does in daily life, from regulating her stress levels to maintaining a healthy diet and sleep schedule. Being an immunocompromised senior, COVID has also taken precedence in her life: she says that she is taking every precaution that she can to keep herself safe, and urges others to consider the safety of people like her during this pandemic.

To Margarita, her new normal is accepting that she’s living with cancer, that she isn’t in remission. She has always had a positive outlook on life, but her perspective after cancer is even more optimistic: her new mantra is that every day is a bonus. Margarita runs four times a week, takes walks outside daily, and sets aside time to spend with family, because she is making every effort to enjoy life to the fullest. She encourages others to do the same, saying that you don’t need to have had cancer to appreciate the little things in life!

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