After breast cancer kills mom, brave survivor battles disease twice

Gloria Suardiaz Alvarez believes that finding cancer early saved her life twice

Alvarez family: Kyle, Gloria, Kelly and Ralph Alvarez pose for a family photo on mother's day.
Alvarez family: Kyle, Gloria, Kelly and Ralph Alvarez pose for a family photo on mother's day.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Two weeks after her Cuban mom died of breast cancer, Gloria Suardiaz Alvarez was diagnosed with the unrelenting disease. 

She learned her first lesson about breast cancer, the disease is not only for the elderly, or for those choosing unhealthy lifestyles. She was 42. As a personal trainer and group exercise instructor, she had been a regular at the gym for years.

"I was obsessed with exercise and healthy eating at the time, six-pack tummy and all," Suardiaz Alvarez, 57, said.  

The Miami Killian Senior High and Florida International University computer science grad was the busy mother of two teenagers, Kyle and Kelly. She was married to Ralph Alvarez, a busy Cuban-American businessman from the University of Miami, and the former president of McDonald's Corporation.

"My bleakest moment ever was having to tell my children that their mom had the same illness their beloved grandmother had just died from," she said.

The cancer was caught early and was highly treatable. It was ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive cancer that keeps the cells inside the breast milk ducts. As she was mourning the loss of her mother, she underwent two lumpectomies and several weeks of radiation therapy meant to kill cancer cells.

During treatment, she continued to have a non strenuous exercise regimen.

COMPLETE COVERAGE | Meet Miami's cancer dancer

In 2005, she became a board of directors member of the Y-Me, an organization that ran a 24-hour hotline meant to connect survivors with patients nationwide. Two breast cancer patients founded the organization in 1978.

"Then in the Fall of 2007, I was diagnosed again," she said. "It was the same breast but a different kind of cancer. It was a shocker to my doctors."

The disturbingly harsh news: It was invasive ductal carcinoma. This meant the cancer cells had spread out of the milk ducts and into the breast tissue. It was in a different area of the breast from where the first cancer was.

This cancer was also highly treatable, and even curable. It was a stage 1, which means the cancerous cells were confined to a small area. They fed on estrogen and progesterone hormones, and they were a grade 2 out of 3, which means they were dividing faster than normal.

Suardiaz Alvarez opted for a bilateral mastectomy, surgery to remove both breast. For five years, she was also prescribed a pill of Arimidex a day. The drug is meant to stop the production of estrogen and reduce the risk of a cancer recurrence.

The effects of radiation therapy she had back in 2000 complicated her reconstruction surgery. It was a painful process that included using her own tissue and skin substitutes.

The technique using her own tissue is called Thoracodorsal  Artery Perforator flap. Her surgeon used skin and fat from her upper back and moved it to her chest. The skin substitute included the option of using pig or cadaver skin that was treated for support.

COMPLETE COVERAGE | With pink boxing gloves, couple fights together

Radiation therapy "has been the culprit of most of my challenges and the numerous reconstruction surgeries that I have had to endure," she said. "Still today I have swelling and side effects and a compromised reconstruction on the right side."

There were other difficulties. In 2012, Suardiaz Alvarez was the vice chair of Y-Me. She had to sign a letter announcing that the organization could no longer go on. This was a very sad and frustrating time for her.

She continues to be an advocate and always has suggestions for breast cancer patients and their families.

"Do not panic when you hear the scary diagnosis. Take time to understand your options. Try not to scour the internet too much, but only one or two top internet sites or it will drive you insane.

"Be patient with all the ridiculous advice people give you; they mean well but really don't understand. Get more than one opinion and select the doctor that feels right to you."

Suardiaz Alvarez believes that early detection was key to her survival, so her most important suggestion to all women is to get a mammogram.

"Get your checkups ladies, because early detection is a life saver."