3-time cancer survivor inspires
It was the hair, she says. She never realized how much her hair had meant to her.
It’s three years later, and Maridel Perez has some of it back. She sports a bob that just covers her neck and outlines her beaming face with a bright, buoyant appeal. She wears it happily.
She once had lovely locks to complement her pixie face; a dark cascade of vigor and beauty that fell midway down her back. She had always taken good care of her hair — right up to the summer of 2012 when she lost every strand.
Maridel Perez remembers feeling ... less.
“That made the cancer real,” says Perez. “When your hair falls out, you have cancer. I’ve gone through that experience and now I know that when a woman loses her hair, it can feel like a great loss. Talking about losing your hair? It’s a big part of recovery.”
She shares her memories with those recently diagnosed or treated for cancer to give them hope, to let them know they are not alone.
At 40, Perez is a three-time cancer survivor, and has finally found her own purpose, her own hope: She has become the guide and counselor, the confidant she wished she had eight years ago.
It is ironic that Perez shares her experiences freely now. Only a very few people knew that she had already battled cancer twice. When she talks about it, you can feel her cathartic release, borne from years of struggling with cancer — mostly by herself.
Her experiences are genuine and real, her overall shyness only giving credibility to her words. It is difficult to talk and learn about Del Perez without walking away inspired.
“Maridel is an inspiration. She started the Carabaos for the Cure movement in her school, inspiring her team so much that they continued to relay in her honor when she had to leave for treatment,” says Tina Noket of the American Cancer Society Guam. “She possesses a caregiving spirit that seeks to make the journey for those with cancer a little easier to bear.”
Her ordeal started in 2007.
She got the call while teaching Math Club at M.A. Ulloa Elementary School. Come back now, said the doctor’s office. An ultrasound and biopsy had revealed carcinoma in her breast.
“Me? Cancer? I was in denial. I never got sick in my 20s. How could it be cancer? I was only 32,” says Perez. “I was stunned, I didn’t let it sink in. I told them that I need to call someone because I can’t drive.”
She had it removed a month later and spent almost every minute in between thinking she was going to die.
Then she struggled through recovery with a smile, doing her best to forget it ever happened.
But a double whammy arrived 18 months later. Uterine cancer and endometriosis.
“They told me it was early but the only option was to take everything out,” she says. “I had a hysterectomy and it brought my whole world down again.”
Her mortality revealed, she questioned her existence. “Why me” was most common. “What if I was gone” was another. “Would people forget me? Did I make an impact?”
And the most depressing: “Did I even count?”
Only family and a few close friends knew about her second cancer treatment and again, she chose to bear her struggles mostly alone. She had much to think about.
“Yeah, cancer. It ruined some of my plans,” she says. “I still want a family, and I’m still hoping to meet that one person who will be my happily ever after. I think about having a family and I already know I can’t have my own kids. Yes, there’s adoption but when I made inquiries, they had rules. No diabetes. No cancer. It’s not the end of that but it was disappointing.”
Her harsh recovery became less so as months passed, then years.
And then, the third call. She answered with a resigned tone.
“I was like what else? What else can you tell me now?”
It’s breast cancer again, replied her doctor. It’s aggressive. We need to take care of it now.
She left to Manila three weeks later for surgery but this time she was different. Where she once kept her troubles within her family walls, she was now a buoyant cancer patient.
Her family that had always been there were joined by many more friends, rallying support for the longtime teacher.
Perez got her surgery at St. Luke’s in the Philippines, a common medical destination for patients from Guam. She would seek out people from Guam by herself, just to talk to them and feel a little closer to home. It was therapeutic to her, and she realized her words were welcome.
Her doctor told her she needed to rest in between chemotherapy treatments; she said pshaw. She went on sightseeing tours, visited family and took daylong trips to Divisoria, a shopper’s paradise. She had lots of kids she loved back home, and they would all get pasalubong.
“I had three friends in a row diagnosed. I started having more people close to me, my age, I realized cancer can really happen to anybody,” she says. “And who would want that to happen to them. From there, I focused on supporting them.”
It was infectious.
She walks her survivor strut with pride and confidence, willing to help anyone at the drop of a hat. She stays busy herself, at least keeps her mind moving because when she has too much time to think, she starts asking questions again.
“Yes, cancer ruined plans, but it wasn’t the end, not the end at all. I’m still alive and kicking, I’m still making a ruckus. Throughout this cancer ordeal, I’ve been by myself, but I’m OK. I never said I couldn’t do this by myself. It would be nice to have shared it with somebody but it’s OK,” she says. “Today, I cherish more the simple things. I love hanging with my family, I love being near them. I don’t buy things for myself as often. I spoil everyone else. I take my joy in helping others.”
Noket is happy to have Perez on the ACS team and looks forward to giving her public speaking duties. She is a powerful beacon of hope, says Noket.
One tidbit Perez shares? It’s OK to still use shampoo and conditioner on your bald head. She did it, too. And, you don’t have to use so much, she adds, laughing.
Perez has a new lease on life. Time and love are precious, things are not. Can’t take anything with you, either.
“I used to spend a lot on myself, things like clothes, ... I know those are just material things. Faced with the possibility of death, I don’t think of material things so much now,” she says. “I am just so very happy to be alive.”
Know someone whose accomplishments, talents, job, hobby, volunteer work, awards or good deeds qualify them for 15 minutes of fame? How about someone whose claim to glory is a bit out of the ordinary – even, dare we say, oddball? If so, nominate them here.
Spotlight on You Gallery