ARLINGTON — Jessica Rivera got her hair cut on Monday.
Rivera of Arlington went to Great Clips in Peru, where they divided her long dark hair into two, 10-inch ponytails before cutting it off.
And Rivera thought, one more time, about her mother.
“A couple of years ago my mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s mother, Maria Rodriguez, was only in her 40s when she was first diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. Due to the nature of the cancer, doctors decided not to remove her breast, but rather to first shrink it with chemotherapy and then remove the shrunken lump.
Rivera said her mother had long, beautiful hair before she began the treatments.
“One of her biggest fears was losing her hair,” she said.
Shortly after the treatments began, Rivera did start losing her hair with long dark clumps falling out in patches.
“One day I came home and my little brother Luis was shaving her head for her,” Rivera said. “She had so many patches that having the hair there just didn’t look right. Once her hair was gone, she cried, and she was so upset.”
A few days later Rodriguez went to the hospital, where she was given a free wig. Rivera said it made her mother feel so much better.
“It was like she was a completely different person,” Rivera said. “She was so grateful that somebody donated that much hair to make her a wig.”
Eventually the tumor was removed, and Rodriguez underwent radiation to make sure it wouldn’t come back.
Unfortunately, while the breast cancer didn’t come back, one year later Rodriguez began getting a sore neck and bruising easily. She went to the doctor and was diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors told her her chances of survival were small.
“Her hair was finally starting to grow back, and she was so excited about it growing back, and they told her, ‘You’re going to go through the same thing again,” Rivera said.
Rivera said the medicine they used for her mother’s breast cancer was so potent there was a possibility of contracting leukemia.
“Basically that’s what happened,” Rivera said. “Trying to get rid of the breast cancer gave her leukemia.”
Again Rodriguez lost her hair. She received a bone marrow transplant from her sister Sandra, and the leukemia went away.
Three months later it was back, and this time it proved fatal. Rodriguez died May 4 of this year. She was 45 years old.
“She put up a good fight,” Rivera said.
Rodriguez’ family and coworkers were supportive of her battles. Maria’s Team was formed and participated in Relay for Life events in Mendota and Spring Valley.
And Rivera would just keep on donating her hair.
“My mom just was overwhelmed,” Rivera said. “She thought it was great.”
Rivera said getting a disease such as breast cancer or leukemia is horrible, but there are also side effects such as hair loss to deal with.
“So when my mom gets the disease and then loses her hair, and then she’s getting all these marks on her face from the radiation and the chemo, getting the wig completely changed her whole outlook on things,” she said.
Rivera said when her mother would go to Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, they would go through the cancer unit and see 5 year olds who were completely bald.
“All they want is hair,” Rivera said. “Especially the little girls.”
After Monday’s hair cut, Rivera estimated she had donated about eight feet of hair. She said she sees many people who could also donate hair but might not do it because they don’t know how.
Rivera said there are a lot of places who will cut hair for free if it’s donated, and even hair that has been colored can be donated.
“It’s simple things people can do that go a really long way,” she said.
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Breast Cancer Awareness Month
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 210,203 women in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, and 40,589 women died from the disease. Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women.