Cancer Stories
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She rarely wore the thing but sitting in church one Sunday, she’d had just about enough of the wig she was wearing.  

“I couldn’t stand it another second,” she said, “so I stood up, left the sanctuary and took it off.”  

Maria Galloway moves quickly.

“What are you doing?,” her husband, Benjamin, whispered when she returned to her seat, bald head showing. Of course, he knew.

Maria Galloway and her husband

His wife of five years had breast cancer and her chemotherapy treatments had caused her hair to fall out. Their fellow parishioners had seen her bald head.  

“Some of them even told me I rocked the bald look,” she said, grinning from ear to ear.

Benjamin added that the wig “just wasn’t Maria!”

Meet Maria

Maria Galloway, a 61-year-old native of Mindanao, where her Philippine name is Marilen Gerena, is by her own admission, a somewhat impatient person.  

It also wasn’t like Maria to be anything but positive when she learned she had cancer.

“I now think this was part of God’s plan for my life,” Maria said, adding that while the diagnosis was a complete shock, she only felt numb. “The word ‘cancer’ was strange to me.”

Maria shared the news with Benjamin the next day.

“His face told me he was more frightened than I.”

“How do you want to tell the children?” he asked.

Via ‘Messenger’ Maria talked to her children in Australia every day so a call from her was normal.

“I told my daughter, Isabel, first,” she said, “telling her I had some news for her and that I wanted her to take it with an open mind.”  

It was evident that Maria wanted her children to be as positive as she was that the cancer was not going to win.

Isabel began crying immediately, then barraged her mother with questions. She also knew very little about cancer.

Maria had a group chat the next day with her son, her daughter-in-law and her son-in-law.  

They all wanted her to return to Australia for treatment.

“No,” I told them, “I’m living in the most advanced country in the world and I have very competent doctors at Riverside who are taking good care of me. I trust them.”

Maria never posed the Why me? question.  

“I didn’t really know exactly what cancer was,” she said, “it was a new word to me.”

The diagnosis

In 2018 Maria had her annual mammogram at Riverside Walter Reed Hospital in Gloucester, Va. This time, however, the results were different from previous tests. She received a call to go back for a second test.

When it was over, the nurse asked her to wait a few minutes because the doctor wanted to see her.

“It was more like 20 minutes,” Maria remembers, sensing something was wrong.

“But I wasn’t worried, at least not at that time,” she explained. “There were so many thoughts going through my head.”

She sat alone in the doctor’s office. When one of Riverside’s general surgeon came in, he sat right beside me and held her hand.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “Our knees were bumping each other.”

The doctor told her she had four tumors on her left breast.

“We suspect they are cancerous,” the doctor said, “but everything will be okay.”

Maria responded immediately. She didn't cry; she wanted to spring into action.

“Really?,” she asked, “what do we do next; we have to move now!”  

Maria’s impatience came to the fore, just as it had the day her wig was bothering her in church.

She immediately had an MRI scan and then waited for a call from the surgeon with the results. Three weeks later she had received no call.  

“I became frantic,” she admits.

She called the nurse coordinator, learning that the delay was caused by the time needed to assess and study her case and decide on the best course of treatment for her. It was only then that Maria started crying… for the first time since she has been diagnosed.

The doctor called Maria that same afternoon, asking her to come in for more tests, this time on both breasts.

Maria’s second MRI scan showed another tumor on her right breast, which turned out to be benign.

Treatment

Oct. 5, 2018 Maria had a total mastectomy on her left breast and a lumpectomy on her right. She has chosen not to have reconstruction, nor does she plan on having it.

Her attitude remains positive.  

“When I was diagnosed I wasn’t educated enough about the disease,” Maria said. “No one in my family had ever had cancer.”

Maria received a lot of advice from friends and family members when they learned of her diagnosis.

“I listened to them because I knew they loved me and wanted to help,” Maria explained, “but I only took advice from my team of doctors and especially my oncologist.”

Maria began chemotherapy in November 2018. She went once a week for four hours for six months.

“I just sat in the recliner and fell asleep,” she said. “Because of my strong faith I was so confident about the treatment I was getting and that it would begin to heal me. I wasn’t worried.”

During her chemo, Maria took a temporary leave of absence from her job as a certified nursing assistant for Heron Cove at Riverside’s Sanders Retirement Village in Gloucester, Va.

Her treatments became further apart and took less time.

Her last one was on Nov. 27, 2019.

“I went with her for that last one,” Benjamin said, “and I was so exhilarated knowing that we could now move on with some of our plans.”

The first thing Maria felt was relief and thankfulness.

“I am so blessed and I believe I’ve been healed,” she said.

Ever upbeat, she provided lunch and a big cake for all of the medical team who helped her through her journey.

“That’s who she is,” Benjamin said.  

He took a bouquet of flowers to the party, he said, “because we were celebrating.”

Next steps

Maria retired on Thanksgiving evening, 2019.  Yes, she worked her regular shift after Thanksgiving dinner. Benjamin, who was 70 at that time, had also recently retired after a 50-year career in the structural steel business.

Benjamin also said that he is as happy now as he has ever been.  

“Maria is one of those people you just want to be around,” he said.

“She inspires me, my family, our neighbors and our church family at Beech Grove Baptist in Hayes, Va.,” he added. “And, she has made them more aware of this disease and how to beat it.”

Maria and Benjamin had been married at that time almost six years.

During these years, their annual cookout for their neighbors has grown from about 30 people to 70.  

“It’s because of Maria’s upbeat personality,” Benjamin explained, obviously so proud of his wife and the way she has influenced and inspired everyone she meets.

Benjamin also said that he and Maria had always wanted to go on a cruise.

“So I gave her one for her birthday,” he said, “a cruise to Cuba!”  

Maria’s cancer intervened and the trip had to be cancelled.

“But,” Benjamin added, “we’re finally going on a cruise next year, but not Cuba. Cancer took that first one from us but it didn’t defeat us. This time we’re going!”

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