Breast cancer did not rob this mom of a lifetime with her son

After 25 years of diagnosis, Maria del Carmen Valencia lives to tell the story


MIAMI – When Maria del Carmen Valencia was diagnosed with breast cancer, her biggest fear was that the disease would cut her time with her only son short.

She was 26 and married to Camilo Valencia. Their son Eric was two. It has been 25 years since the scare. She survived breast cancer to spend many special moments with her son and to give other cancer patients hope.

"My overall perspective changed," she said. "I realized at that age how quickly the trajectory of life can change for anyone of us."

Valencia's first diagnosis revealed there were cancerous cells in the right breast's milk ducts. The doctor said she had found the cancer early at a stage 1 out of 4, because the cells had not spread to the breast tissue.

She would later find out that the diagnosis was wrong. It was her first lesson on how to deal with the disease. She said it is important to get a second and third opinion not only to confirm the diagnosis, but to also get another view on treatment options.

"If it weren't for Camilo and I taking the specimen to a second doctor and pathologist for a second opinion, I would not be here to tell this story," Valencia, 52, said.

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The second pathologist said the cancerous cells did not respond to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. This made the cancer much harder to treat, because the most effective drugs blocked estrogen to prevent cancer cells from spreading. About 10 to 20 percent of diagnosed breast cancers do not respond to hormone therapy, the National Breast Cancer Foundation reports. 

She would later find out the cancer was not a stage 1. It was a stage 3 out of 4, because it had spread to her lymphatic system. It was a very fearful year, and there were many times when she didn't have the energy to take care of her son.

"Though we are no longer together, I will never forget how Camilo supported me throughout that time," she said about her husband at the time.

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Valencia's first step was surgery. She underwent a lumpectomy, surgery to remove the malignant tumor and surrounding tissue and not the breast. The surgeon also found cancer in 13 lymph nodes under her right armpit.

The next steps were more aggressive. There were about six months of chemotherapy, the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body. There were also several sessions of radiation therapy meant to keep the cancer cells from reproducing.

"They just hit me with whatever they could treat me with back then and set me loose," Valencia said.

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There are more than 2.8 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. The survival rates vary depending on the type of breast cancer, how aggressive the cells are and if they have spread from the breast to other organs.

Valencia is a survivor, who no longer remembers the risk of the disease coming back. It took her about a decade to decide to get plastic surgery to improve the appearance of her breast. And that was also a painful process that required patience.

"I had four surgeries," she said. "The radiated breast caused lots of problems and I caught an infection with an opened cut that broke open, because of the damaged radiated skin. It all healed."

Valencia and her son are best friends. Her career with First American Title Insurance Company has flourished. She is now the South Florida account executive. And she and her son share a love for the Miami Heat and the Miami Marlins that will last for as long as they live.