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Juanita Torres – Cervical Cancer Patient Story

Image of Juanita Torres and her son.

Cancer took Juanita Torres’ mother and father, but she wasn’t going to let it take her.

When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in August 2009 at the age of 68, she recalled her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis.

“She died six weeks later,” says Juanita, now 82. “My mother never said anything about her pain before then. I was determined to speak up and take action.”

Before her diagnosis, Juanita had spotting while visiting her sister in Florida, who encouraged her to see a doctor. She made an appointment right away with her provider at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.

An MRI confirmed Juanita had stage three cervical cancer, meaning the cancer had spread to areas around her pelvis, beyond the cervix.

She told her son Louis the news in-person and he encouraged her to seek treatment right away. Juanita’s doctor referred her to Alexander Olawaiye, MD, a UPMC Magee-Womens gynecologic oncologist, and Ravi Patel, MD, PhD, a radiation oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

“I told Dr. Olawaiye I got my boxing gloves on and I’m ready for the fight,” says Juanita, a retired bilingual customer service representative in the financial services industry.

Comprehensive Cancer Care

The doctors worked together to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for her. One week later, she started chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Each chemo treatment lasted about three to four hours and would continue for six weeks. Juanita says she appreciated the nurses who helped her get through that time by offering her favorite hot tea and advice.

“I was looking at the chemicals in the bag, and my nurse instructed me not to look at it and instead take my mind somewhere else – to think about a lunch date with my sister,” she says. “That was really helpful to keep my mind from wandering.”

Juanita’s son accompanied her to each appointment.

"I couldn’t have done it without him,” she adds. “I finished treatment right around Thanksgiving, but since I needed to relax, Louis made sure we had a holiday meal and cooked the traditional Puerto Rican mainstays.”

Life-Saving Surgical Treatment

In February, she underwent a surgical procedure called a total pelvic exenteration – a procedure that typically has a five-year survival rate of 50%. During the procedure, Dr. Olawaiye removed her lower colon, rectum, bladder, cervix, vagina, ovaries, and nearby lymph nodes.

“He did a great job and saved my life,” says Juanita, who appreciated how Dr. Olawaiye explained the surgery in laymen’s terms. “He said ‘I re-routed your plumbing.’”

She would remain in the hospital for three months. In March, Juanita started rehabilitation to re-learn essential tasks like eating, and how to use her new urostomy and colostomy bags that collect her urine and stool.

Through all of this, Juanita remains optimistic nearly 15 years post-surgery.

“I’m alive and well. I owe my life to Dr. Olawaiye,” she says.

Juanita also keeps herself busy with knitting, crocheting, needle point, and even doing alterations on clothing, which she used to do part-time in Brooklyn, N.Y. and in Pittsburgh.