Surviving cancer: Pursuing a new purpose

By Carolyn Kimmel

At her lowest moments, feeling sick and scared as a 10-year-old with cancer, Angeles Magana Espinosa drew her greatest strength from those who were there when no one else could be – her nurses.

“They always took the time to talk to me and encourage me, when even the smallest thing was so scary to me,” Angeles said of her nurses at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “I always wanted to be a teacher, but I saw how much nurses can help their patients, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

This fall, Angeles, now 18 and in remission, will be a freshman at Lebanon Valley College, pursing a nursing degree with a full-tuition scholarship that she earned, in part, with an essay on being a cancer survivor.

“Since I had cancer, I see life from a different perspective,” said Angeles, whose high academic standing at Chambersburg Area Career Magnet School is another reason she was chosen for the scholarship. “What I went through gave me a purpose in life. If I can inspire others and make a change in this world, I want to do that.”

Early lessons in courage

Angeles was in elementary school when a surprising pain in her left thigh began to keep her from enjoying recess. Next, she began limping. The pain kept getting worse. A month later, an MRI showed she had osteosarcoma - bone cancer.

“I didn’t know anyone who had cancer, and I don’t think I really knew what that meant,” said Angeles, as she recalled the calm way in which her father told her the news. She relied on Dr. Lisa McGregor, pediatric oncologist at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, to explain what she was facing.

Her treatment consisted of surgery to remove most of her femur, which was replaced with a metal rod, and nine months of chemotherapy, which necessitated her spending every Wednesday through Sunday at Hershey Medical Center. That’s when her relationship with her nurses really grew.

“After surgery, any movement I made with my leg was very painful. That’s when I thought, ‘Am I going to get through this and survive?’” Angeles said. “I was already going through chemo, and that was hard enough.”

Support from the nursing staff, doctors and her family were a big part of her successful recovery, she said. Angeles completed chemotherapy at the end of March 2015 and then did a 72-week course of oral maintenance chemo, which she finished in September 2016.

Processing through therapy

She entered sixth grade using a cane, but she was starting to feel “normal” again, she said. However, the road back from cancer is often filled with switchbacks - for Angeles, they came in ninth grade when she started high school feeling anxious and depressed.

She credits her parents with getting her a good therapist who helped her see she had never really processed having cancer.

“Because I was so young when I got cancer, sometimes it felt like it was a dream. By talking through it and accepting that it happened and it was really hard, I could see that everything I was feeling was OK,” she said. “Overcoming it was even better.”

Her parents emigrated from Mexico, determined to start a better life and have their children in a country full of good possibilities, she said. Cancer wasn’t one of them, but their unwavering support inspired her to catch their vision for what her life could be.

“I worked really hard all through school to get good grades in hopes it would pay off,” said Angeles, who is excited to be the first person in her family to attend college.

She’s also proud that her parents overcame a Hispanic cultural norm that she says stigmatizes mental health therapy.

Teaching others

“A lot of people my age are struggling with mental health problems, and they need to know it’s OK to get help,” she said. “I talk about my situation with my friends so they know.”

It’s just another way Angeles is trying to help someone else, just as she was helped.

One day, when she’s the registered nurse standing at the bedside of a young patient and it’s her turn to give encouragement, Angeles knows just what she’ll say.

“I know it’s really, really hard, but one day, you’ll be somebody who is strong and does big, big things with your life. Think about that and use it to get through today,” she said. “That’s what I’ll say.”

Angeles Magana Espinosa is pursuing a nursing degree with a full-tuition scholarship that she earned, in part, with an essay on being a cancer survivor. More photos >>