For the 46th year in a row, City of Hope will participate in the Tournament of Roses Parade. This year, 10 patients will welcome 2018 atop City of Hope’s Rose Parade float. The float, themed "Transforming Lives with Hope" adds a deeper dimension to the parade’s theme of “Making a Difference.”
Here, we meet float rider Maria “Becky” Velazquez-McIntyre, a former patient with a remarkable story.
A bad elbow led to the discovery of Lancaster, California, resident Maria “Becky” Velazquez-McIntyre’s ovarian cancer
In late 2014, an orthopedist treating Velazquez-McIntyre, 52, for elbow issues noticed something a little off on her periodic bloodwork. He suggested she get it checked out further.
The first doctor Velazquez-McIntyre went to ran some more tests and told her she was fine. “But, it was bothering me that the orthopedist didn’t like what he saw,” Velazquez-McIntyre recalled. So, she paged Vijay Trisal, M.D.,
associate clinical professor, Division of Surgical Oncology
at City of Hope, who had treated her father’s colon cancer many years before and become a family friend.
“He called me within five minutes, and I told him what had happened,” Velazquez-McIntyre said. “He said, ‘I don’t like it either. I’m going to have you see a City of Hope doctor in Antelope Valley and we’re going to figure this out.’
“They got me in within a couple of days,” she continued. “The doctor ran bloodwork and tests. He would say, ‘I’m not quite sure yet, but let’s keep looking.’ Finally he said to me, ‘Becky, if it was my wife, I’d have her do a vaginal ultrasound.’”
The ultrasound showed a complex cyst in Velazquez-McIntyre’s right ovary. Velazquez-McIntyre then met with Trisal, who gave her the option of leaving the cyst or having it removed. Velazquez-McIntyre opted to have it taken out. Trisal promised it would be an easy one-hour surgery.
“So, I go into surgery and unbeknownst to me, I come out six hours later,” Velazquez-McIntyre said. Her seemingly benign cyst was malignant. “They removed the apron of my abdomen and they removed 37 lymph nodes and gave me a full hysterectomy,” she said. “I was hospitalized for a week.” Trisal and Nimit Sudan, M.D., hematologist and oncologist, told her she had aggressive epithelial ovarian cancer, Stage 2C.
Following her aggressive surgery, they recommended an equally daunting chemotherapy treatment — six cycles, including intraperitoneal chemotherapy (in which the peritoneum is infused with heated chemotherapy drugs that are drained hours later) and traditional infusions.
“They said a lot of women don’t get through all six treatments,” she recalled. “They explained the side effects and said I could have severe neuropathy, that I might not make it through this. It was brutally honest.”
But Velazquez-McIntyre had something that made her want to fight — her then-12-year-old son Nathan. Born 10 years after her wedding to husband Chuck, Nathan is “my entire life and world,” she said. “Nathan's name means "a gift from God" and that is what he means to me. He made me fight through that journey. When I was told I was Stage 2, my husband asked me, ‘Becky, what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘It’s not what I want to do, it’s what I have to do. I could not leave my kid. I knew what I was fighting for. If I didn’t have my son, I think I would have thought, ‘I don’t want to put my family through it.’ He saved my life and he is my life.”
Velazquez-McIntyre donated a “mission accomplished” ship’s bell. Patients toll the "survivor bell" when they finish their regimen.
While spending all of those hours undergoing chemotherapy, Velazquez-McIntyre read about a naval officer who had donated a “mission accomplished” ship’s bell after finishing his chemo at MD Anderson in Houston. Velazquez-McIntyre loved the idea. She had a similar bell made and donated it to the City of Hope Antelope Valley community practice site the month following completion of her chemotherapy. Months later, she donated a similar bell to the Duarte campus. When patients finish their regimen, they toll the “survivor bell” three times and sign a book. Velazquez-McIntyre has now donated nine bells to City of Hope infusion centers around the state, raising money for the bells by selling handmade soaps.
“It’s to let other people who are getting their infusions know that that person finished their chemo journey. They were able to complete their cycles,” she said. “So for someone who is new sitting there, they can see and hear that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For me, it signifies hope. I wouldn’t have been so afraid if I had known others had made it through it before me.”
Now, people are told about the bell when they come in to start their chemotherapy, Velazquez-McIntyre said. “They look forward to ringing the bell.”
For two years following treatment, all of Velazquez-McIntyre’s scans were clear. This August, she had a brief scare when a scan showed enlarged lymph nodes, which were ultimately determined to be from knee-replacement surgery the previous March.
It was during this scary time that City of Hope asked Velazquez-McIntyre to ride on their Rose Parade float, she said. “I was stunned and mute for a couple of seconds,” she said of receiving the call. “I looked up and I saw my son’s picture and I thought OK, if I am able to, even if it is a recurrence of ovarian cancer, I’m going to participate in the float. I want to continue to make my son proud. Even if I’m sick, if they’re willing to have me on the float, I’ll do it. So I told them yes.”
A full-body PET (positron emission tomography) scan on Sept. 25 showed her lymph nodes had returned to normal.
Two years following treatment, Velazquez-McIntyre said, “I have pain quite a bit.” The chemotherapy also left her with severe neuropathy, “So my balance is a bit wonky at times. But I can say this: I will take these pains any day as long as I have completed my journey with ovarian cancer so that I can see my son every day. I’m good.”
The notion that her cancer was silent and symptomless and would not have been discovered were it not for the instincts of her orthopedist frightens Velazquez-McIntyre. “I had no symptoms whatsoever,” she said. “Do you know what Dr. Trisal and Dr. Sudan told me before I walked out the day I received my diagnosis? If they had not removed the cyst when I insisted, I would have been dead in two months.” (Sudan has since left City of Hope.)
For that reason, she urges all women to trust their guts, and to insist on a vaginal ultrasound "if you have a gut feeling that something is just not right. If I had not gone with my gut feeling about how I didn’t feel right about what [the other doctor] told me, I’d be dead right now.”
For women who have just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Velazquez-McIntyre recommends that they ask their doctor if they can communicate with a patient who has gone through what they are about to experience. “As much as other people want to give you advice, if they have not been down that road, it isn’t valid,” she said.
Of her survivor bells, she said, “Whether it is ovarian cancer, colon cancer, throat cancer, lymphoma, whatever, I wanted them to know that there is hope. That you can get to the other side. Because others have.”
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