Updated: Jul 9, 2020
| This is the 137th story of Our Life Logs |
I learned what it meant to survive at a young age. I waited patiently for my father to escape death, and from then on, I was determined to be like him. But after so many years of fighting my own battles, I learned that surviving is not simply overcoming death, but rather, not letting death overcome you. I learned to embrace each day and take on a peaceful heart.
My story began on December 2, 1939. At just a few months old, I almost died from a high fever. At the time, there wasn’t much knowledge on how to treat this and my doctors thought I wasn’t going to make it. They even asked a priest to come and baptize me at the hospital. To everyone’s surprises, I ended up surviving through the night.
I grew up in Kingsville, Texas in the early 1940s during the time of World War II. My father, the man who first taught me about survival, was called to serve in the war as an engineer and would be stationed in Germany. My earliest memory was when we went on a train ride to San Antonio in 1942 to see my father leave us. The military soldiers helped us get off the train to say goodbye to him. He left with no guarantee that we might see him again. I remember I used to sit in front of the radio as they would announce the men who died, anticipating my father’s survival.
Thankfully, my father came back in 1945 when the war ended. He survived. And from him, I learned to find hope when times seemed dark.
There was a lot of racial conflict where I was from. It was hard as a young girl because I was often a target of this learned anger. I was a child to an interracial couple—my mom was Hispanic, and my father was white. Even when I was in an all-Hispanic girl scout troop called the “Blue Birds,” the girls picked on me for having a white name, and later in high school the Hispanic girls called me “stuck up” for being quiet. However, I made a friend named Kita who became my best friend all through elementary and junior high. I learned to lean on her friendship as I tried to figure out where I belonged. After joining band, string orchestra, and finally cheerleading my senior year, I ended up dating the captain of the football team. The hardships of high school were well worth meeting him—and our relationship didn’t end there.
We got married on January 27, 1957 at the Catholic Church in Kingsville, Texas—at just 17 years old. I was also pregnant, and very quickly became a stay-at-home mother, even though I had plans of joining the workforce.
On August 29, 1957, my son John was born. A year later, we had our first daughter whom we named Sandra. After years of cramped apartments and living with relatives, we finally moved and bought our house in Baldwin Park, California.
Little did I know I was entering a new chapter of life. It would be more painful than I had ever experienced.
On a visit to Kingsville, Texas in 1965, I contracted mumps; and soon after, I contracted encephalitis from a mosquito bite. That tiny little bug put me in a coma for three days. Oh, it was horrible. It was hard to speak because my tongue was paralyzed, and even after the feeling came back I couldn’t talk for weeks.
I survived the illness and went back home to California. After something so sudden and uncontrollable, I just wanted life to be normal again. I entered the workforce until my daughter Katrina was born in 1971. I stayed home to care for my daughter, and I would take her to school. I ended up becoming a teacher’s aide for her school and developed an interest in working with children with special needs. In 1982, I started working at the district office in special education. In those years, I felt like life was, in fact, normal.
Yet in September of 1982, the doctors called me with news that no woman wants to hear. A test had confirmed that a lump in my breast was cancerous. I was devastated. I remember in that moment I felt hopeless, as if they weren’t going to be able to save me. By November, I was hospitalized and had to undergo treatment, followed by a mastectomy for the diseased breast. It broke my heart. I didn’t feel like I was intact anymore. I felt like I was crumbling, and I didn’t have much time left. But soon enough, I was on bed rest during my recovery. I’d felt this weak once before, but this time I could barely move my arms. As soon as I was able, I went back to work. I thought that entering back into a normal lifestyle was the crown of survival.
About two years after the mastectomy, my breast was reconstructed, and it was good…for a while. Until, in 1986, cancer reoccurred in the same area of my breast. They took the reconstruction off and I had 46 radiation treatments throughout the two years that I was going back to work. But what was I to do? I had to survive.
Just when I thought my health was stabilizing, I went back to the doctors in 1988. I had fluid in my lungs that was cancerous. The doctors ended up draining two liters of fluid that was from the breast cancer. That was all they did for me then. I still would go back and forth to work and people would tell me to rest and take time off. But, why would I? What would I be fighting for?
Two years later, I went back to my doctor because I was having some trouble breathing. Turns out, I had developed cancer in the upper-left corner of my lung. Before then, I’d never been more afraid of cancer, and never angrier. What gave it the right to come back and haunt me?! I remember driving home after getting my diagnosis. I gripped the steering wheel and screamed my head off.
They had to open up my rib cage to cut off the tumor in my lung to make sure there was no cancer cells. It was the worst surgery of my life. I was so weak. When we returned home I couldn’t make it up to my bed, so I slept on a chair until my daughter Sandra, brought me a hospital bed. Within six weeks, I went back to work until I retired in June of 1997. My job was now to care for my grandchildren.
All this time I’d been dealing with cancer and I didn’t expect it to consume anyone else. In 2003, my daughter Sandra developed uterine cancer and I was shocked. By the time she found out, the cancer was in stage four. She went through chemotherapy twice and radiation pallets. She had hysterectomy and many, many surgeries. It seemed that no matter what the doctors tried, the cancer wouldn’t go away. I watched my daughter toss and turn in more pain than I had ever known—even with my own cancer experience. Eventually there was nothing else that could be done. After much grief and learning to accept my daughter’s death, we sent Sandra off to heaven on April 7, 2007.
I felt numb. I continued to ask myself “Why do I get to survive?” I had so much love for my child and felt that it was unfair that she was the one to be taken away. I begged God to show me why. Slowly, I learned that it was not up to me. I learned that I might never understand why, but regardless, it was my daughter’s time to go. I had to continue with a spirit of hope in honor of my daughter.
Just when I thought cancer would finally leave me and my family alone, I noticed something on my clavicle bone that looked different, and I began experiencing pain in my lower spine in 2014. I went back to the doctors, which brought yet another cancer diagnosis: bone cancer. I began yet another round of radiation treatments that lasted every day for three weeks.
Today, I live with my bone cancer, getting infusions and I no longer have to take medications. I’ve been doing it for three or four years now—honestly, I’ve lost count. I don’t keep track of my cancer anymore. I’ve learned that it is a part of me. I believe that survival is not just about escaping death, but rather, escaping the fear that comes with death. When my time is up, I will no longer fear it. I wake up in the morning, thankful to have seen another day.
This is the story of Anna Lee Vela
Anna, 78, lives in California with her family. Sickness followed Anna all her life, including cancer diagnoses that made her spend half of her life battling. She lives today with bone cancer, but she is no longer afraid of death. She knows her time will come when it’s meant to.
For many years, she has been a part of the church community that helps her deal with her experiences and help others deal with death and grief. She believes that she’s still here because her family still needs her love and care. She does whatever she can to care for her children and grandchildren. Over the course of her life, she has had 11 surgeries throughout her body. She’s realized how strong she is from her experiences. She hopes to live long enough to see her children and grandchildren succeed. These days, that is all the gratification she needs.
This story first touched our hearts on July 23, 2018.
| Writer: Cerina Galvan | Editors: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |