Leticia Alvarenga is a “through thick and thin” type of person. Raised in a big, close-knit family, she is always ready for a celebration. And as a member of a big, close-knit family, she is good to be around when things get tough.
The youngest of five kids, Leticia (or T-Bird as she is known to her family) is twenty-two years younger than her oldest sibling. As a result, she grew up not only with brothers and sisters of her own but also a nephew and niece closer to her age who were basically siblings as well.
In her early forties, when she began to have some abdominal bloating, neither she nor her doctors thought it would be a big deal. Her blood work looked fine. Her doctors told her to put more fiber in her diet and she decided to take the edge off the very spicy diet she had enjoyed her whole life.
She had faced health challenges before. At the age of thirty-four, she was diagnosed with Lupus (an inflammatory disease caused by the body attacking its own tissue). She was also an Air Force veteran who ran her own business. A little discomfort wasn’t going to shake her up.
A short time later she would begin to notice blood in her stool which proceeded to get significantly worse. Not wanting the anesthesia required for a colonoscopy, Leticia opted for a sigmoidoscopy. A few moments into her procedure the Doctor announced, “There’s your bleeder.” When Leticia asked what it was, the doctor replied flatly, “It’s cancer.” In hindsight, Leticia did not blame the doctor for the blunt delivery of the life-changing news. The doctor was just as surprised as she was, and the patients were usually asleep.
It was February of 2019 and Leticia was a stage III colorectal cancer patient. She was 43 years old.
Her family and a core group of lifelong friends who called themselves “The Texas Girls” were there for her every step of the way for support.
Prior to treatment, Leticia received a call from the surgeon who threw her another curve ball. After reviewing her scans, the surgeon informed her that she would end up with an ostomy after surgery. The news devastated Leticia. She had always looked at cancer as something she would go through and that would be that. She could manage the treatments and the surgery would take the cancer out. Then she would be done with it. The colostomy was permanent. As she puts it, “I hung up the phone and cried for three days. And then I said, get your shit together and learned everything I could about it.”
She would begin treatment with the process known as chemo-rad, oral chemotherapy (in this case Xeloda) combined with radiation to shrink the tumor prior to surgery. A side benefit of the chemotherapy was her Lupus going temporarily into remission.
The surgery would be extensive. Over a foot of colon had to be removed along with twenty lymph nodes. Leticia also opted for a full hysterectomy. Post-surgery, friends and family gathered in her hospital room (they put the number at nineteen), complete with balloons, flowers and even a cooler or two. Just what she needed.
Wrap up chemo followed, ending in December of 2019. Throughout all of this, her family and friends stayed by her side. When chemotherapy wouldn’t allow Leticia to go on a boat trip with the “Texas Girls,” they purchased a Fathead blowup of her face to let her know she was with them in more than spirit. Her mantra through any adversity was the words of her deceased father, Louis Herrera Sr., “Keep on trucking T-Bird.”
And that she did. And that she has.
Leticia applies her advocacy to her career. When running a benefits presentation to her clients, she makes sure to include slides about proper screening for colorectal cancer. Just a couple slides allow her to segue way into her story and let her audience know about her experiences and the importance of screening, knowing your family history and being your own best advocate.
As of the writing of this piece, Leticia has reached four years since diagnosis and just passed three years since the end of her treatment. She is still NED (No Evidence of Disease) and enjoying life with her daughters, Monica and Natalia, her son Joshua, her spitfire mom (who turns 94 this year), the rest of her family and of course, “The Texas Girls.”
She is still trucking today.