Mayra Montijo was going to be a senior at Waltham High School when she discovered a large lump in her neck.
In August 1999, Montijo was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – transforming her normal 17-year-old life into one filled with hospital visits and missed classes.
At 19, Montijo discovered another lump, this time in her left breast, and she “just knew” she had cancer again, she said. She was diagnosed in February 2001 with an invasive ductal carcinoma, which means the cancer began in the milk ducts and spread to surrounding breast tissue.
Montijo moved with her family from Puerto Rico when she was three years old and grew up in Waltham on Moody Street, “near the Shoppers,” she said.
After living a normal childhood, said Montijo, discovering she had cancer “was pretty tough.”
At first her doctor thought the lump was an inflamed lymph node, she said. She was given anti-inflammatory pills, but the lump did not shrink.
Montijo had the lump surgically removed, she said.
She said she remembers the day she was diagnosed with cancer “pretty clearly.”
“It was the college fair day,” she said. Her mother called her at school, crying, and said Montijo should come home. Her parents told her she had cancer.
“You go through your ‘why me?’ moment,” said Montijo. “I went through the ‘why me?’ for an hour.
“Then I figured my family was going through a harder time than I was. I was the youngest in the family. I have two older sisters.”
Starting in September 2001, Montijo underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
For her radiation treatment, “they gave me three blue tattoos,” said Montijo, pulling down the collar of her sweater to reveal three tiny blue dots about three inches below her collarbone, used to mark the spot where the radiation beams would be aimed.
“Everybody who has cancer has three tiny dots,” from radiation, she said.
“It was actually super sad,” said Montijo. “You would have kids who were one year old, three years old, completely bald from chemotherapy.”
During her treatment, Montijo observed the other kids from a distance, she said.
“I was secluding myself. It’s kind of really hard to go through it.”
Montijo said she remembers being mad at her nurse during treatments. “She was the one who was making me sick,” she said, “but she was used to it. She became one of my really good friends.”
Through the treatment, Montijo said she lost 30 pounds from vomiting and losing her appetite.
“I was a size zero,” she said.
“I lost all my hair. That happened about a month after I started (treatment).”
Montijo said she wore a wig during high school. “I tried not to be so vain, but it was explainable.”
Although she was unsure of how her classmates would react, Montijo said, “the support level was huge. Nobody teased me. They just wanted to know what I was going through.
“They treated me like nothing was wrong,” she said. “They weren’t like, ‘this is the cancer girl.’
“I have to say that if it wasn’t for my friends and family,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here today.”
Montijo said she missed out on a lot of education. Always an A or a B student, Montijo was put on a pass/fail system her senior year.
In one English class, however, her teacher did not want to simply pass her, but instead give her an actual passing grade.
“He told me to write stuff out,” said Montijo. “He got me a scholarship to go to college.”
She was unable to attend college because she worked to cover the cost of her treatment.
“I didn’t want anyone else to carry my burden,” she said.
Two years later, in 2001, came the breast cancer diagnosis. She had a double surgery to remove the lumps.
“I actually cried a little (when I was diagnosed),” said Montijo, “but I laughed and said, ‘maybe two times is a charm.’
“I find the light in it,” she said.
An administrative assistant at East West Mortgage in Marlborough, Montijo said her employer is extremely understanding and flexible with her ongoing follow-up examinations.
Montijo said she continues to find lumps in her breasts, but they have all been benign.
“Cancer changes you,” said Montijo. “You never give up. It’s not the end of the world.”
Montijo, now 27, reached her 10th year in remission from lymphoma in March this year, and next February marks 10 years of breast cancer remission.
Montijo is building a house in Lunenburg with her boyfriend.
“Hopefully,” she said about February’s big anniversary, “I will throw a big party at my new house.”
Jen Judson can be reached at 781-398-8004 or [email protected]