At the end of 2017, Isa Mendez had occasional spotting. Perhaps it was her strenuous spinning classes, her four-hour drives or even the long work hours of endless stress. Negative pap smears lead to a sonogram that revealed a fibroid on the top of her uterus.
Solving this health issue was a no brainer: Isa has four kids in their 20s, so removing her uterus would affect her life very little. However, surgery confirmed much more than the fibroid: a cancerous tumor that had gone undetected via pap smear and sonogram.
“You were lucky we went in,” Isa’s doctor said. “Otherwise who knows when we would have discovered it.”
Treatment started immediately. So did the body aches, brain fog, and nausea that come hand in hand with simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation – radiation five days a week and chemo once a week. The treatments were successful and her cancer went into remission.
Eleven months later, Isa’s doctor found a nodule in her lung. Instead of just performing a biopsy, Isa asked them to open the lung and remove whatever they found. Doctors complied and found the cancer was back.
It was time to try chemo again. She was scheduled for six sessions, with each lasting six hours. Mid-way through her chemo treatments, Isa had a PET scan to observe how she was reacting to the chemotherapy. When she went to her doctor’s appointment for the results, she saw a puzzled expression, “I looked at him and said, ‘Don’t tell me. I know.’”
Isa’s doctor responded, “I was ready to put you on remission because you are perfectly healthy in every other way, but it’s metastasized. I don’t understand why chemo didn’t work for you.”
What started in Isa’s uterus had spread.
“My doctor gave me the option of trying immunotherapy or try 2 more cycles of chemo just to see if it might work. My cancer had spread while I was on an aggressive treatment, so I knew it would only be more torture for my body. I refused chemo and made my life decision, knowing immunotherapy could my last resource and hoping for the best.”
“Everything changed. We’re not looking for remission.” At stage 4, Isa’s new focus is to avoid her cancer from spreading further and hope that the existing tumors shrink – or at least stop growing.
At the end of August, she started participating in a conditional approval (experimental) study of an immunotherapy treatment. The existing studies are concerning – the immunotherapy boosts the immune system, it triggers inflammation of the internal organs, which then can cause the body to attack itself – but Isa is willing to risk the potential of adverse side effects for more time with her family and friends.
“I’m fighting cancer. I’m fighting for my life, for my family. I refused to know the survival rate for my cancer diagnosis because life, as we know it, is worth living to the max, without the shadow of a number,” Isa divulged.
Isa and her family cling to hope – hoping that the immunotherapy is effective in keeping her cancer from spreading further. In the meantime, she’s focused on living each day as if it was her last. She’s building memories with her family, “If I’m not here in 2 or 3 years or whatever, I want my kids to have good memories to share with my grandkids.”
However, if her cancer reaches the point of no return and Isa faces an agonizing death, she wants to have the option of medical aid in dying. She doesn’t want a prolonged death and is willing to move to another state to access medical aid in dying, “I hope Florida lawmakers keep their hearts open to understanding what terminally ill people are feeling and experiencing. Put themselves in our shoes and understand that in our reality, we need options.”