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Phoenix Forward

Pregnant mother battles breast cancer and graduates

Pregnant mother battles breast cancer and graduates

Breast cancer: Those two simple words her obstetrician delivered in April 2010 sent a high-voltage shock through Candice Valenzuela, who was then pregnant with her third child and a student at University of Phoenix.

“I just could not believe that I had breast cancer when I heard those words,” the Nevada mother recalls.

But it was the options laid out before her — pursue chemotherapy or terminate her 15-week pregnancy — that drove home the reality. Determined, Valenzuela says she refused to allow the aggressive HER2-positive breast cancer to control her life and ambition, or the life of her child.

“I was not about to let cancer stop me from reaching my goals,” recalls Valenzuela, who proudly graduated March 25. She received her associate degree with a concentration in health care administration only 17 months after the healthy birth of her daughter, Zoey, and only six months after her final round of chemotherapy.

She attributes her success to the support from her doctors and the willingness of her University counselors to let her temporarily withdraw from her online classes while she underwent a physically tolling 18 months of chemotherapy and radiation. The doctors also performed surgery on Valenzuela, then nearly six months pregnant, to remove the one-inch-wide lump she had discovered during a routine breast self-examination.

At the time, returning to school seemed a distant dream.

“Physically, the fatigue took too much of a toll on me,” Valenzuela recalls. “I couldn’t even bathe without getting exhausted. Halfway through I’d just sit down in the tub and cry because I couldn’t stand long enough.” The numbness of her extremities, the tingling on her face and the burning sensations from her medical treatments also seemed like too much discomfort to face while studying. But, in the end, her maternal instincts conquered her doubt.

“I felt this sense of urgency to set a good example for my children,” says Valenzuela, who already had two children, Mia, now age 6, and Omar, who is about to turn 10. “I wanted my children to be proud of their mother and to know that whatever [the] struggles … I was still going to prioritize my education.

Even though she hadn’t completed chemotherapy, Valenzuela returned to school that fall, which synched with her children’s school schedule.

But returning to college wasn’t easy. Valenzuela fought what she calls her “chemo brain,” a shorter attention span and trouble with instant recall. She found it difficult to grasp new concepts and frequently forced herself to reread course materials.

Yet she also gives breast cancer credit for allowing her to experience and understand the patient perspective. “It solidified what I wanted to do as a career and helped me to do better in my classes.”

Ultimately, Valenzuela wholeheartedly lauds education for exercising her brain and giving her added inspiration. “My next mission is to continue with my bachelor’s degree and get a job in the health care industry.”

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