Erika Galan remembers crying on her way to pick up her two daughters from their father’s house one day this August.
She was worried they might not recognize her, or that her 2-year-old daughter, Viviana, would be scared of her. She was worried how they would feel about having a mom who was sick.
She was worried about how they would react to seeing her bald head for the first time.
The 34-year-old Mercedes native, had just shaved off her black tight curls, tired of seeing them fall out in clumps after she was diagnosed with stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer in July.
Erika had no reason to worry: the girl’s reactions gave their mom the peace and confidence she would carry throughout her fight against breast cancer.
“Mom, you look so pretty,” Viviana said, laying a hand on her mom’s newly shaved head before wrapping her small arms around her.
“Oh, you cut your hair,” added 7-year-old Arabella, Erika’s oldest. “You look so pretty.”
If her daughters could look past her cancer, so could she.
On July 14, Erika was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at the Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg, the same place she works at. In observance of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she is sharing her story to spur awareness of the disease and encourage other women to be actively checking their breasts for abnormalities.
Though she said no one could ever be prepared to be a cancer patient, working in several departments of the hospital, including DHR’s Oncology Department for a couple years, helped her know that she could find support in the community.
Erika is an onboarding coordinator at the hospital and has been a part of several cancer-awareness events in the community before becoming a patient herself.
She was a volunteer for the hospital’s past two Girls Night Out events, which pampered local breast cancer survivors and fighters. She helped other women put on pink hair extensions and get pink manicures done — a color that now has a new meaning to her.
She also ran in the 2019 Love your ChaChas 5K event in McAllen, and was a volunteer at DHR’s Childhood Awareness Walk that same year. These are just some of the ways Erika has been involved in local efforts to raise awareness of different types of cancer.
“It is surreal because when I did these events, I did them because I wanted to and not because it ever crossed my mind that it would help me someday,” she said. “Now being the patient, I understand how much the support from others in all kinds of ways can mean to someone.”
Erika has also found strength in her coworkers, who she considers as family.
A day before she shaved off her hair, four of her coworkers surprised her by shaving their heads in their office on Aug. 20., the same week as Erika’s birthday — it’s a gift she said she will never forget.
Nelly Zarate, a risk management framework liaison for DHR Health, was the only woman of the four who shaved her head, which was no surprise to her coworkers who know well about her loving nature.
“We love hard, we fight hard,” said Veronica Villarreal, the center’s chief ambulatory officer.
Zarate could barely keep her composure while talking about Erika’s cancer on Monday. The love she has for her and the rest of their team is so immense.
“One of my team members had cancer, and I did it so she would not be the only female to go in without her hair,” Zarate said with tears streaming down her cheeks, slipping inside her pink mask.
“She’s got this,” she later said, looking over at Erika. “Cancer does not have her, she’s got cancer.”
The first time Erika felt her tumor was earlier this year when her daughter hit her chest area while being fussy one morning. It hurt more than it should have.
For months after, Erika didn’t think much of the pain, but it lingered. By June it became unbearable.
After a push from her boss, Erika scheduled an appointment with Dr. Lisa Chapa, DHR Health’s director of breast surgery, who found a 2 millimeter tumor under her left breast. Erika was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which Chapa noted as one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer.
The name of this type of cancer comes from the fact that women with it do not possess any of the three major receptors physicians use to locate and attack cancer cells. “I see receptors as little mouths scavenging for food, so if you have an estrogen receptor on your cancer cell, then your cancer cell is looking for estrogen to eat from your own body,” Chapa said. “If identified, we can block it from eating the estrogen and starve your cancer and keep it from growing.
“When a woman has either low receptors or none at all, it means that those cancer cells have learned to grow on their own without a food source.”
One in eight women in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer according to the National Cancer Institute, making it the second most common cancer among women after skin cancer.
Chapa emphasized the importance for women to be regularly checking their breasts for abnormalities.
“Familiarize yourself with your breasts,” she said. “Once a month, make sure that you do a self breast exam, get to know your body, get to know your breasts so that in a couple of months if you feel something that was not there before, you are alerted to it and you can get it checked out.”
Since July 31, Erika has been getting chemotherapy every Friday. She is on her fourth round of treatment, and has four more to go.
She said so far, some of the symptoms she gets include fatigue, hot flashes and joint pain. She also gets dehydrated easily, though the steroids she has to take makes her body retain more water than before, causing her to gain weight.
“It definitely put me in a depressed phase because I was not used to seeing my body the way it currently is,” Erika said. “That is one thing I have had to learn how to kind of not get too sad about.”
On tough days, it’s the smile of her grandfather who had lung cancer that helps her stay strong.
“Everyday he had a smile, and if someone who was stage 4 could get up everyday with a smile on their face, how could I not,” Erika said.
Her grandfather died February 2013, but she has hope that he is smiling down at her as she stays brave in her fight with cancer.
One way Erika has shown her resilience is in a video she posted on her Facebook page of herself at the gym in September, bench pressing on a Friday, right before getting her next round of chemotherapy.
It’s a much different video than the one she posted in August just a few weeks after her diagnosis, which shows her laying on the gym floor exhausted and crying.
After her first round of chemotherapy, Erika began fundraising for uninsured breast cancer patients in the community, raising about $600 so far from selling shirts and earrings, and hosting raffles.
She said she is glad breast cancer is being highlighted this month, but the efforts to raise awareness should be year round.
“It is a great representation for a month and it is definitely the month to educate ourselves… but I feel like people get caught up in the pink trend” she said. “For many women, it is more than just a color.”