I'm a Survivor
By Holly Figueroa
October 20, 2017
Hi, my name is Holly Figueroa! I’m 45 years old and originally from the great state of Texas. I am the proud mother to a beautiful daughter, I am over 6 years sober. On top of all that, I’m officially in remission from breast cancer. That’s right, I’m a survivor! While being a cancer survivor does not define me, it is a huge part of who I am today.
I’ll always remember May 25th, 2015…at exactly 2: 38 PM. I was at the hospital, finally getting my mammogram performed which I had skipped the previous year. I knew that I had a lump, which I attributed to just being either scar tissue or a cyst. As those had run in my family. My boyfriend, however, was having none of that and he “forced” me to go get one done.
As soon as I finished with the mammogram, they immediately wanted to perform an ultrasound right then and there. I still wasn’t worried. I felt it was merely a benign cyst. Upon completing the ultrasound, the technician went and grabbed the doctor who came in and told me they were referring me to an oncologist for me to be seen as soon as possible.
“What for?” I exclaimed.
They told me they believed I had breast cancer, so I needed to be seen by a specialist as soon as they could get approval.
“How sure are you?” I asked.
Of course, I was in shock and disbelief! My first thought was, “Fuck this! I’m going to go have a glass of wine!” But by the time I got to the car, that whole scenario had played through my head and I knew that would only end with me getting into deeper trouble. I just sat in my car; screaming and crying. I was pissed off thinking, “I quit drinking, I quit smoking, and now this! Why the hell is this happening to me?!”
By the time I drove home, I knew I had to call my mom to tell her the news. At that moment, I put my “game face” on and immediately changed my tune of anger to one of unbridled resolve. I vowed that this would not take me out! By the end of the phone conversation with my Mom, it was I consoling her, not the other way around. Deep down, in my gut I knew that I was going to beat this and that she need not cry about it.
10 days later I was back at the original doctor’s office, still waiting for my insurance to approve the referral to be seen by an oncologist. This time I was sure to bring a sober member of my support group with me in case thoughts of drinking crossed my mind once again and I wasn’t able to play the tape forward.
Honestly, I was just getting antsy to get the whole process started so I could kick cancer’s ass! During this time, I had to share the news of my diagnosis with my daughter. I was absolutely terrified to tell her, and I did so, sobbing. Like with me and my mother, she was the strong one, and she consoled me. She told me I would be fine, that I hadn’t gone this far in my life and subsequent sobriety just to have it all end now.
On June 10, 2015, I finally went to see the oncologist with my boyfriend and daughter at UCSD hospital; one of the best cancer treatment centers in the world, especially when it comes to breast cancer. I was told I had stage 2 breast cancer, and that they needed to run some more tests to determine the specific type of breast cancer.
When we got those results, it wasn’t exactly great news. In case you didn’t know, breast cancer can be positive for 3 different hormones and receptors: estrogen, progesterone, and another receptor called her2nu. I was positive for all 3 which meant I had a very, very aggressive form of breast cancer. In fact, it wasn’t until I was declared in remission did I fully understand my situation, as my boyfriend didn’t let on just how bad things were.
The thing is, when you are told you have a life-threatening disease, what you hear in the doctor’s office doesn’t exactly register. It’s like it goes in one ear and out the other because you’re still in shock, and it feels like it’s just one long, never ending bad dream. I strongly recommend that if you ever find yourself in this situation, it’s very important to have someone attend each and every appointment, test, and treatment, so they can take notes and provide moral support.
My oncologist and surgeon decided I would undergo infusion treatments and radiation, followed by surgery, and several years of maintenance medications. Not once did I ever think that the cancer would kill me. I don’t know how to describe it, other than I just was not ready to go, that my Higher Power still had unfinished business with me, and that I couldn’t leave my kid behind.
Luckily, I qualified for and elected to participate in, clinical research trials for brand new drugs not yet approved by the FDA. These drugs were able to turn the former death sentence of my Her2nu positive status into something that could be taken advantage of, as a sort of homing beacon for the drugs. The list of legal documents I had to sign was one for the record books.
At every turn, I chose the more aggressive form of treatment whenever I was given an option (believe it or not, my doctors allowed me a good amount of freedom to choose my treatment path without stepping in, until the very end).
For 3 months, I underwent weekly infusions of these clinical trial drugs. After that, I did 3 months of traditional chemotherapy infusions. The worse part wasn’t when my hair fell out, although that was tough to swallow. One day I woke up to find my eyebrows and eyelashes were gone too! That devastated me. That’s when I broke down like I had in the beginning, but those feelings of total despair were replaced once again with an unknown resolve… I wish I knew how to explain it better, but, it’s just like a switch flipped in me and I found this source of inner strength I NEVER knew existed.
After 6 months of infusion treatments I began the radiation process. I knew I was nearing the end of this nightmare as I started the radiation therapy. It was both a happy time and a scary time. I was worried that once the drugs were no longer in my body, the cancer would have an opportunity to come back. But the doctors re-assured me that I had elected to choose the most aggressive treatment path possible up to this point and I shouldn’t be concerned. Easier said than done, right?
After radiation was finished, it was time for surgery. Personally, I wanted to be done with it completely and really wanted a double mastectomy. That’s where they remove the entire breasts. It was at this time that the doctors finally spoke up and voiced their concern and strong opinions that I needed to finally choose the easier, softer route. It took some doing, but they eventually convinced me to go with a double lobectomy, where they remove part of the breasts, as well as, remove a few lymph nodes on one side which were potentially cancerous as well. Reluctantly I agreed, decided to put my faith in them and the fact that my Higher Power wouldn’t let them steer me wrong this far into the process.
The surgery went really well, getting everything out that they needed to. I was officially declared cancer free after my surgery. I was still freaked out, wondering, “Are you really, really sure?”
I went through some depression at this time, for which I sought professional help with. That really made a difference and continues to help me today.
As I write this, I continue to take oral medications daily, including one that was just approved by the FDA, as well as receiving injections every 3 weeks. The reasoning is because my cancer was hormone positive, they need to keep me in medically induced menopause to reduce the chances of it ever coming back.
The frustrating part is when we elected to go with the double lobectomy, I was ensured that insurance would still cover a full reconstruction, including implants. After waiting a year to have 2 clear mammograms to fulfill the plastic surgeon’s recommendations, we set up a surgery date for full reconstruction. I was so excited to finally have my “daily reminders” fixed. That’s when we were told insurance would not cover my reconstruction, deeming it purely cosmetic.
Even when we argued that because I have such dense breast tissue, implants would only make it easier to detect the early stages of re-occurrence, insurance balked and has declined my request for surgery. In response, I started a GoFundMe earlier this week to help me raise the remaining money I need for a full reconstruction. You can find the details of this campaign here:
Any extra money raised will be donated to men and women with cancer. Any prayer, sharing, support, or donation (no matter how large or small) is greatly appreciated and not taken lightly.
My personal Facebook is Holly Palmer Figueroa: https://www.facebook.com/holly.p.figueroa
In closing, I want to tell people that no matter what crummy situation you may be facing, to keep your head up. If you find yourself in a similar situation as me I suggest you develop a strong support group, keep an open mind when meeting with doctors, take advantage of any resources made available. I was able to go to several support groups and classes funded by the cancer center as well as take advantage of financial aid programs as I wasn’t allowed to work during stages of treatment. Then, most importantly, watch out… you just may find a stronger person deep inside of you than you ever knew existed!
Holly and Marv (Holly's other half) have also created a video of her story and her amazing recovery and maintaining her sobriety. They did a great job of doing the video. You two are amazing, thank you for sharing your story, Holly, and Marv for being the man you are.
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