The road to remission

  • Published
  • By Linda Welz
  • 452 AMW Public Affairs

Four years ago Sandra Reyes was diagnosed with stage four, moderately aggressive cancer and, with chemotherapy, given six months to live. With three children, 16, 11 and 3, and her husband on orders half-way across the country, Reyes said the doctor didn’t want to give her a prognosis because it may affect her recovery.


Reyes said she prayed for wisdom and guidance on how to tell her kids. Although they knew she had cancer, they did not know how serious it was.


“I wanted to be as honest as I could so they could prepare to lose their mother,” she said. “To them, cancer meant death. I told them to prepare for the worst but hope for the best.”


Her mother was with her when Reyes received the diagnosis, she said.


“I was devastated,” Reyes said. “There’s no stage five. Stage five is death. There’s no cure, and nothing they could do but hope the chemo would slow it down,” she said. “The only thing I wanted was for my husband to be with me.”


At the time, her husband, Master Sgt. Mario Reyes-Jauregui, 452nd Security Forces Squadron, was in Texas nearing the end of pre-deployment training. Since no cell phones were allowed in training, he got a message through his supervisor to call his wife.


“I thought the call was part of the training,” he said. “It was kind of a blow. Here I am getting ready to deploy, but those plans need to go to the side now,” he said. “My supervisor was very gracious. He said family is more important than this job. I was on a plane coming home the same night.”



Reyes said that her husband was upset thinking the doctors were starting chemotherapy too late because it wasn’t schedule to begin for a month or two after the diagnosis. His job was to take care of her, but he couldn’t, she said.


“Cancer to me is terminal no matter what until it’s healed. Cancer grows quickly, and can come back,” Reyes-Jauregui said. “I was being more aggressive because that’s my wife’s life. You don’t waste time when it’s life or death. I felt very frustrated,” he said. “I don’t like being held back from progress. That’s how I felt.”


Even as her husband wanted the chemo to begin sooner, Reyes was apprehensive about the treatment.


“I was afraid to start treatment because I felt it was like the beginning of the end,” Reyes said.


The chemotherapy regiment was an all-day process where she was infused with two different drugs, like a chemo cocktail, she said. She would go home feeling groggy and nauseated followed by a day of feeling absolutely horrible, like she had the stomach flu or food poisoning, she said. This feeling continued for three to four days. Then on days five and six she said her entire body hurt very badly, right through to her bones.


“It took me about two weeks (after a treatment) to start leaving my bed and see what was going on around the house,” Reyes said. “That was about the time I had to prepare for another round of chemo, which occurred every three weeks.”


After six rounds of this chemotherapy Reyes said they discontinued one of the drugs and continued with the other as maintenance for almost three years.


“I felt like a burden. I was so sick and tired of feeling that way, and I was going to die anyway, so why go through this,” she said. “I contemplated taking my own life.”


Reyes-Jauregui said if it was not for the deployment, which put him in an active duty status and provided him and his family with TRICARE medical benefits, things may have turned out differently.


“I thank the Air Force for saving my wife’s life,” he said. “She was stable when I started the deployment. The TRICARE doctor referred us to The City of Hope, where they started from scratch, doing everything from diagnosis to surgery,” he said. “That’s all we needed, decisions.”


The City of Hope correctly diagnosed her cancer as Peritoneal Mesothelioma, and she underwent aggressive abdominal surgery to remove it, coupled with a localized heated chemotherapy. She was hospitalized for two weeks, followed by a six-month recovery phase at home.  



She had a lot of time to think during that time in her life, Reyes said. She thought about her walk with God and her relationship with her kids. Her conversation with God had her consider if she loved her kids enough to fight for them, she said.


“When I stand before him (God), what did I have to show? I hadn’t done anything for his kingdom,” she said. “Secondly, I was so driven to work, bring in money, be independent, while telling my kids, ‘Later, let me finish this first, etcetera,’ that the quality time wasn’t there,” she said. “This completely change my perspective.”


That’s when she decided to snap out of it and focus on what she could do to help her body fight, Reyes said. So, she researched supplements that would help her body recover from chemo, began juicing, using herbs and eating better, which all helped with her recovery, she said.


“It was a turning point,” Reyes said. “I couldn’t leave my kids like that, so I decided to put my all into it.”


Another Tragedy

While Reyes-Jauregui supported his wife through her treatments, another tragedy struck. His beloved brother, a Marine, took his own life.


“Even though my wife was going through her pain, she was there for me,” he said. “We supported each other. All I wanted to do was just go to sleep and hope that it was a bad dream. She said, ‘No, I have cancer. I feel terrible. Get up. We’re going to the gym.’ She was my rock then. We are each other’s rocks.”



After about a year and a half of treatments, Reyes decided to do something to help herself – working out and taking her nutrition to the next level. This enabled her to recover from treatments much quicker, to the point where her kids would question if she had even had treatment, she said.


“I felt psychologically and emotionally stronger. I surrendered it all to God,” Reyes said. “I didn’t need to understand why. I know that God has a plan and purpose for me and my children.”


As soon as she was cleared by her doctors at the City of Hope to exercise, Reyes said she began training for a bodybuilding competition.


Fast forward to today, Reyes recently competed in her second Natural Bodybuilding competition with the International and Professional Natural Bodybuilding Associations, placing fourth overall at the Team USA Nationals held in Las Vegas, Nevada. She has lost a total of 80 pounds and teaches kickboxing classes at her gym. Her cancer is in remission and she feels blessed, she said.


Reyes-Jauregui said this experience has made him appreciate things more and not worry about the little things.


“I appreciate our times together, am more expressive, affectionate, considerate, and overall a better person,” he said. “It’s sad to think it took a tragedy to reprioritize ourselves. We have both changed. Thanks to the City of Hope and the Air Force together, my wife is here today.”


As for Reyes, here is what she would tell someone who has been diagnosed with or is currently fighting cancer: “You will feel a mixture of emotions from sadness to fear to anger. People will not understand when you express your fears or concerns, and they may say things to make you feel like what you’re feeling is not normal. You may even feel like you need to be strong all the time because people are expecting you to. This battle is not just physical. It is also emotional and psychological. A diagnosis such as cancer changes our lives from one moment to the next, and we need to allow ourselves time to mourn for the life we thought we were going to have. So everything you feel, or are going to feel, is normal. You don't have to be strong all the time. Turn to your support system for help, they want to help. Join a support group so you can talk to others who can relate to what you are going through. Some people may think a diagnosis is the beginning of the end, I know because I thought the same. However, it doesn't need to be. Make it the beginning of a new chapter in your life. Start giving your body the nutrients it needs to fight this fight, and exercise it to build your endurance to help with recovery. Give yourself something to look forward to; a hobby, a goal, a vacation. Do all those things you put off for later. Spend that quality time with those you love. And do it because you said you were going to do it. This life is promised to no one, so why wait to live the life you always wanted?”