'Previvor' heads off cancer

10/19/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Veronica Contreras, truancy officer at Horace Good Middle School, isn't your typical cancer survivor.

In fact, the married mother of two has never had cancer.

She is, however, a "previvor."

Cancer "previvors" are people who have a predisposition to cancer but haven't yet had the disease. The definition includes those who carry a hereditary mutation, a family history of cancer or some other factor making them predisposed for the disease.

For Contreras, that predisposition was a family history of cancer. Her grandmother and three of her five sisters have had cancer.

In 2010, while helping her sister, Marissa, through breast cancer treatment, Contreras was informed by doctors seeing her sister in Wichita that genetic screening was available that could indicate her risk of cancer. She didn't hesitate to take the tests.

"It kinda scared me, knowing I could be next, so I wanted to know," she said.

Two weeks later, the results indicated Contreras had a 99 percent likelihood of contracting breast and/or ovarian cancer.

As a result, Contreras decided to take preventive measures. In May 2010, she had surgery to remove her ovaries, and in June 2011, she had a double mastectomy.

Following the surgeries, additional genetic testing showed her risk of breast or ovarian cancer dropped to 2 percent.

"I don't regret it. I did this for my family. I wouldn't want them to fear that Mom could die from cancer," she said. "It's out there so much, and they see it. I also wanted to get the word out there that I'm all for taking genetic tests and preventive measures."

Contreras has long been active in Relay for Life, mainly because her three sisters are cancer survivors. But now, she has an additional reason.

"I continue to talk to individuals who are more curious about the genetic testing and what a 'previvor' is,' she said.

Originally from California, Contreras moved to Garden City in 1997. She has been a truancy officer for Garden City Public Schools for four years. She and her husband, Art, have been married 14 years and have two sons, Javyn, 12, and Joel, 9.

Contreras said she watched her sisters, Vicki, Marissa and Martha, go through the typical gamut of things cancer patients go through.

"It really opened my eyes to everything they go through: chemo, the fact that they lose their hair, the pain they go through, doctor appointments and all the things they go through as a cancer patient. I thought, 'Could I be next? Could it be me?'"

As caregiver for Marissa, Contreras went to several appointments with her sister in Wichita, where doctors talked about the genetic tests. Getting that information prepared Contreras for the results.

"The way I looked at it, I was kind of like a ticking bomb. I knew I could explode and be diagnosed with cancer, and then it would be too late," she said.

The idea of having preventive surgery to stop cancer before it could start was difficult and a little overwhelming, but Contreras said she was inspired by her sisters and their fights with the disease. Her sisters and family were supportive of her decision and the recovery that followed surgery.

"The fact that I had my family there, my husband and my children, really kept me going. I had to get drain tubes, I had to get expanders, I had to go through everything, except my hair didn't fall out and I didn't go through chemo," she said.

But there was pain, Contreras said, and she had to rely on others and accept their help. She also went through a variety of emotions while recovering. It took some time to follow through with her second surgery, but she wanted to spend more time with her family, doing her job and not focus so much on her health issues.

"I wanted them to see that this is something we're going to overcome, and we're going to move on.

"Did I ever hesitate? No. I have no regrets. I'm happy about what I did," she said.

Family and friends are supportive of Contreras.

Art Contreras said that at first, he didn't understand anything about the testing, but over time, and through talking to several doctors, Art supported the decision to have surgery. But it was difficult to accept at first what his wife would have to go through.

"We put our trust in God. We talked to doctors about it and learned a lot and were satisfied with the answers we got," Art Contreras said. "It's something I would suggest other women to do it. I saw all three of my sisters-in-law going through the chemotherapy, and it was so hard for them, and I didn't want my wife to go through that, too."

Art Contreras said he is proud of his wife for what she's gone through.

"She's a strong woman," he said. "When she made a decision about it, I supported her 100 percent. She had support from the family and from the church."

If Nora Soto had one word to describe her friend, Contreras, it would be courageous.

"She is a very strong person, the kind of person you can look up to. Even as she was going through this process, she still always had a smile on her face. I mean, you never heard her complain," Soto said.

Soto has a lot of respect for Contreras, knowing how she helped out with her sisters while they went through treatment, and Contreras' determined attitude about having the tests and doing the preventive surgeries. Soto said Contreras knew cancer ran in her family, and that motivated her to act. "All that time, she was taking care of her family, going through school and working. You have to look up to somebody like that. She was never like, 'Oh, I can't do this.' She still did whatever she needed to do at home, her job and school and still went through this," Soto said.

Today, things are good for Veronica. She has annual medical checkups, and while it's always possible she could get another form of cancer, she has some peace of mind in knowing the odds are low for breast or ovarian cancer.

"I've learned to value life more, value my family, my kids and just enjoy every day," she said. "But my sisters are my role models because they went through cancer. They were my rocks. There's nothing to compare what they had to go through."

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