Many of my friends, business acquaintances and clients know I’m a five-time cancer survivor, but only my family and closest friends know the whole story. My experiences and battles with the “C word” forever changed not only who I am, but also the trajectory of my life. The reason that I am so passionate about helping others heal is because of my own healing journey, and it’s what ultimately led me to opening Sagewood Wellness Center, and founding the Cancer Support and Education Program.
As a bit of insight as to where my passion for helping others (and for life in general ) comes from, I wanted to share my story here.
The First Battle
I was 27 years old and under a lot of stress. I was carrying a full load finishing up my Master of Science degree in Counseling, working full-time at a new job as a therapist at Mission Viejo Hospital, and ending a 3 year relationship. Stress puts a huge load on our immune system and is the leading cause of illness and disease. So looking back, it’s not surprising to me that I was at that time diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkins Disease, which is a type of lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system.
At that time, I was very much western-medicine minded. I left my healing completely in the hands of my doctors and didn’t become involved in my own healing through integrative approaches as adjuncts to my medical treatment. I received what is known as “total nodal radiation”, which means that I received radiation from my jaw all the way to my groin. Prior to starting treatment, my doctor cautioned me that I’d be at a high risk of getting breast cancer 15-20 years down the line because the radiation harms breast tissue. The radiation treatment was done in three stages and lasted 9 months. This left me physically depleted, but I won my first battle with cancer and I was happy to be alive.
Two and a half years later, at the age of 31, still under a lot of stress due to life circumstances, the cancer returned. This time, I was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkins. It was metastasized – spread throughout my body, in my lungs and my bone marrow. I knew that my chances of survival were probably not very good, so I asked my doctors not to tell me what my chances were. I didn’t want their opinion to color my perception of what I knew was possible: that I could heal. I knew then that the mind is a powerful thing, and I wanted to stay as positive as I possibly could.
I was scared, shocked and angry that the cancer had returned, and I used the powerful energy of those emotions to decide to fight for my life. Before beginning my treatment – which this time around was a mix of the strongest chemotherapy drugs which I took every day, combined with intravenous drugs once per week – I signed up for a program for people facing life-threatening illness. Most of us were diagnosed with cancer. It was 2 weeks long, 10 hour days every day except one Sunday halfway through. The program facilitators were skilled, compassionate professionals who supported us in our journey. We were fighting for our lives, and this was like a boot-camp for would-be survivors.
We felt like warriors doing battle with an insidious enemy. We bonded in our common cause, summoning courage, faith, love and compassion for ourselves and each other. We supported each other in our healing journeys. We learned about mindfulness, nutrition, stress management, and the importance of social support to help manage the emotional stress and keep ourselves strong through arduous medical treatment. And we learned what I believe was one of the most powerful tools in my healing: visualization and imagery. We learned to visualize a strong, balanced immune system and to visualize it fighting off the cancer cells. This really played out later in my treatment, when, 9 months in, I was told by my doctor that he couldn’t give me intravenous chemo that day because my immune system was so depleted that it would kill me.
They always did lab work prior to administering the chemo intravenously to take a look at the blood counts. At that time, he said that he wanted me to go one week without chemo to see if my counts began to rise. Otherwise, he’d have to put me in the hospital for a transfusion. He said that it was surprising that with as much chemo as I’d had, for as long as I’d had it (9 months at that time), that I hadn’t needed to have a transfusion. He said most people would have had 2 or 3 transfusions by that time in the course of their treatment.
So connecting with my courage and inner strength, and above all faith that all would be ok, I went home and for one week focused even more of my attention and energy on meditation, visualization and imagery. I focused on building my immune system to strengthen it, increasing the white “killer” blood cells, the “sweeper” cells, and the red blood cells.
When I went back to see my doctor a week later, he looked at my labs and gave me a look of incredulity.
“What did you do?” He asked me with the same look still on his face.
I looked back at him. “Why?” I asked.
He replied, “Because your blood work is normal.” He looked as if he didn’t believe his own words.
He went on to say that they didn’t see people’s numbers rise and their immune systems even begin to get close to normal until they had been off the chemo drugs for at least a year. My blood counts were normal after 1 week. I was encouraged and matter-of-factly shared that I’d meditated, and did visualization and imagery work with my immune system to strengthen it and bring my counts back up. He shook his head, still with that same look of incredulity and now with a big smile, and said he had never seen anything like it. He also said to keep doing it because it obviously worked.
I did continue to be involved in my healing. Along with my visualization/imagery work, I prayed and meditated every single day. This strengthened my connection to spirit and greatly assisted in keeping me positive and hopeful. I also changed my diet and started eating more fruits and veggies (I would juice 2 to 3 times a day during my year of treatment). I continued to look at the stressors in my life and made changes to remove them. I received a lot of body work and energy work (Reiki) because the chemo was so toxic that my muscles would spasm and I was in a lot of pain.
During this time my views, thoughts and feelings about death changed dramatically as well. I no longer believe in, nor am I afraid of death. I see it as a transition from one way of being to another. I realized then that my body houses my spirit and is my vehicle for being on this planet. I decided that I would do whatever I could to remain here, but if my body failed, I would be on to my next adventure. As a result, fear did not play a part in my healing experience, and being free from fear opened up channels for more joy, peace and gratitude, and most importantly, healing.
12 months into treatment, I was told that the cancer was in total remission. I finally asked my doctor to tell me what they had thought my chances of survival had been during that time, and I was told they had only given me a 10% chance to live. I was very happy not to have known that at the time, as I knew that it would have interfered with my healing. Even more so, I was grateful and felt blessed to still be here in my body, and I knew my life would never be he same.
The Healing Continues…
During my first bout of cancer, I was warned about the inherent dangers of the intense radiation that I underwent. Sure enough, 22 years later during a routine mammogram, the radiologist found an abnormal cluster of cells, which a lumpectomy showed to be breast cancer. Having already gone through my first two battles, I was much more prepared this time around.
Based on all factors involved, I decided to undergo a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery. So in January of 2007, I had my first of several surgeries. At the end of it all, my doctor shared with me that my chances of a re-occurrence were less than 1%, but somehow 9 years later another small breast cancer tumor was discovered. Successful surgeries removed the tumor and I continued my healing journey.
Today, I live life to the fullest while living with cancer – non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma this time. I am confident I will recover from this just as I did the four previous times all the while fulfilling a greater journey – helping others heal and experience greater health, joy, and balance in their lives through the Cancer Support and Education Program at Sagewood Wellness Center.
My Path to Sagewood Wellness Center
Today, I strive not to take any part of my life for granted. I overcame the odds not once or twice, but five times and for that I feel blessed. More importantly, I realized that my journey, my hard-fought battles with cancer and my triumphs over it, had prepared me for something bigger. I was fighting for my life each time, but I was also fighting for a greater journey to be fulfilled.
For reasons explained here, my second bout was especially profound and really changed the path of my life. Eleven years after my second cancer diagnosis, I opened Sagewood Wellness Center, realizing that my story could become a catalyst to help others. I knew that my real journey was not only in healing myself, but in helping others heal as well. I’ve felt blessed and grateful ever since.
About The Author
Maria Martos is the Executive Director and Founder of the Cancer Support and Education Program, and has been owner of Sagewood Wellness Center for 20 years. As a Certified Neuromuscular Therapist, Maria specializes in the treatment of severe, chronic or minor pain, as well as injury rehabilitation and prevention. She holds a certification in Sports Massage providing her with expertise to evaluate and address athletic injuries and to help professional and recreational athletes improve their athletic performance. Maria is also Board Certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. She holds a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology, and offers Holistic Counseling, focusing on Integrative Mind-Body Therapy to help individuals uncover and remove unconscious blocks that limit them from living their best lives. She is also a Reiki Master and Teacher, and has worked in the health care field for over 25 years. Her passion and life’s calling is to help others not just survive, but thrive in the face of challenges.