The Bible verse from Philippians frequently comes to the lips of 29-year-old Elizabeth Trujillo when she is alone, when the fear of leaving her three children without a mother grows inside her and nearly causes her heart to break.
It is then, says this young mother whose breast cancer spread to her bones, that she drops to her knees in prayer in her small apartment near Texas Station and repeats the verse aloud.
“I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.”
Without her faith in God, Trujillo feels sure she couldn’t sit at the kitchen table with her family and laugh as 13-year-old Raquel rolls her eyes and shares how Dad once again overestimated how much fuel was in the car and they ended up walking a mile for a can of gas.
Trujillo also is sure that faith has allowed her to enjoy taking Raquel and 10-year-old Evelyn to their soccer games and to relish helping 4-year-old Isaiah on the computer “just like an ordinary mom.”
That the joys of everyday life can still be hers, that she can get through a painful day without worrying her children about her health — she thanks God every day for that strength.
Thanksgiving will be little different from any other day at her home.
Every day, says this woman whose cancer spread to her skull and back, she gives thanks for God’s blessings, for the family that loves her, for the doctors working to save her life.
“I know He is with me, that He will help me all He can.”
FAITH SUSTAINS HER
The power of faith in the context of cancer treatment has been studied and debated by researchers, patients, physicians and clergy. The American Cancer Society’s position swims in the mainstream of thought:
“Although available research has not supported claims that spirituality or prayer can cure cancer or any other disease, spiritual well-being is linked to better quality of life in people with cancer.”
To doctors who have worked to keep Trujillo alive, there is no question that her faith has given her a quality of life not often seen in patients with Stage 4 cancer.
“She is very spiritually strong,” says Dr. Farzaneh Farzin, the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Nevada radiation oncologist who worked to kill Trujillo’s cancer with radiation.
“She’s very realistic, not in denial, understands the depths of her disease. But she has a strong willpower to do whatever it takes to move on, to focus on how she can make things as good as possible for her and her family.”
Trujillo has needed all the strength she has been able to muster since July 2012. It was then, while exercising at home, that she discovered that she had two lumps in her right breast, each the size of a quarter.
Laid off from a job without health benefits — husband Jorge Guevara’s construction job also didn’t offer them — Trujillo didn’t have insurance coverage or money to pay for care.
Because her children received medical coverage under Medicaid, she tried to get covered under the government health program.
“I told the people at Medicaid about the lumps, and they told me the only way I could get coverage is if I was pregnant,” she says.
“No one told me then I could possibly get help from Clark County Social Services, like I have recently, or that I should call breast cancer organizations to refer me to help. I really wasn’t thinking straight. I had never thought about breast cancer before, because I was so young. I never heard of a 28-year-old with breast cancer.”
(Clark County Social Services provides medical care to indigent and medically needy individuals who are not eligible for other public or private resources. Eligibility is based on an assessment of need.)
Trujillo prayed about her predicament. She decided that the only way she could get treatment for the lumps in her breast, which seemed to be growing larger every day, was to find a job with medical insurance coverage.
Weeks after she started her job search, she found one with a government housing program aimed at helping Nevada homeowners dealing with foreclosure.
In October, her medical insurance kicked in and she went to a place she found on the Internet, The Breast Care Center at Summerlin Hospital.
Nearly three months after Trujillo discovered the lumps in her breast — she says one had grown to the size of an orange — a biopsy performed by Dr. Souzan El-Eid at the Breast Care Center confirmed her fears.
It turned out she had breast cancer caused by a gene mutation that El-Eid says is “associated with bad cancers,” one that is aggressive in young people.
Trujillo, more scared than she had ever been in her life, raced home after the diagnosis and turned to the Bible that had always given her comfort. She said something immediately directed her straight to an unfamiliar verse in Philippians.
“I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.”
She got down on her knees, recited it in English and in Spanish, and she says she felt a strength and peace and faith enter her body that she had never known before.
Trujillo says she knew right then that she not only would be able to endure months of treatment that would include chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy, she would do so without making her kids live in constant fear of losing her to cancer.
El-Eid, who performed Trujillo’s double mastectomy, says she has never seen a young woman in her condition with her attitude.
“The worst part of my job is delivering the bad news to patients,” the surgeon said. “”When I told her the cancer was in her bones, her attitude was, ‘It is what it is.’ Some patients go through denial; some get depressed. Her attitude was, ‘Now what can we do?’ With her faith, whatever life throws at her, she just keeps going.”
Even with her faith, it hasn’t been easy to keep going.
Just before she began chemotherapy in November 2012, her husband, who she says has been a major help with the children and housecleaning, hit black ice as he drove the family to his wife’s native Colorado.
“We spun off the road and a truck almost hit us,” Trujillo says. “It was a miracle we didn’t get hurt, and it took us a couple of days to get there; but we got to my dad’s, and he had his whole church pray for me. I think that helped me.”
Because her radiation treatment burned her armpit to the point that she had difficulty moving her right arm, Trujillo wondered if she would be able to drive her stick-shift car without having an accident.
“I solved that,” she says laughing. “I taught Evelyn and Raquel both how to move the stick while I used the clutch. We didn’t have any problems at all.”
She did have problems with the strong chemotherapy regimen prescribed by Dr. Fadi Braiteh.
Off and on, Trujillo suffered high fevers, diarrhea, vomiting and shingles.
To make matters even more challenging, Evelyn had to be rushed to Sunrise Hospital on Christmas Eve for an emergency appendectomy.
Trujillo, although hurting, stayed with her daughter for several days in the hospital.
“That’s what mothers do,” she says.
It is a late Friday afternoon as Trujillo, her husband and their children spruce up the house for the weekly Bible study in their small living room.
She will cry tears of joy as friends, family and members of her church, Aguilas Family Christian Center, pray that her cancer stays in check.
“I felt the power,” she says.
Days later, she wants to talk about how she got her oncologist, Dr. Fadi Braiteh, to laugh.
“He’s a very nice man, but I’d like to see him laugh more,” she says.
She remembers how she showed up for a bout of chemo wearing a black wig that looked just like her natural hair. “You told me I’d lose my hair and I didn’t,” she told the doctor with a straight face.
Braiteh admits being stunned. No one had ever taken the level of chemo he prescribed for her without losing his or her hair.
“That’s great,” Trujillo remembers the doctor saying. “I’m happy for you.”
Then Trujillo tore off the wig. She and the good doctor laughed. Hard.
“She really got me that time,” said Braiteh, who doesn’t discount that Trujillo’s amazing faith and desire for normalcy during a time of medical crisis could bring miracles.
“I have seen miracles. It doesn’t happen every day, but I don’t dismiss them,” he says. “Science can’t understand everything.”
Braiteh doesn’t pretend to know what Trujillo’s future holds:
“Right now we are managing her cancer and she is only taking one drug to control her hormones. … It’s almost in remission. Her cancer is now restricted to bone only. In her case, we are hoping for prolonged control of the disease, but I keep telling her that it might come back. … She had cancer cells that went out of control like a car going downhill without brakes.
“And I tell her what she already seems to know — to live as though you’re dying tomorrow and to plan for tomorrow as if you’re living forever.”
Reporter Paul Harasim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.