Teenage Immigrant Survived Cancer, Built A New Life

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
Advertisement

No one who survives life-threatening cancer emerges from that dark tunnel the same person who entered. In her new memoir, "It Gets Better!", Maria Machado Munroe draws together her experiences as a teenage cancer patient and her struggles and joys in building a new life for herself. By telling her story in clear and powerful prose she creates an inspirational recounting for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer.

When she was eleven years old, Maria and her family immigrated to the United States from a small island off the coast of Portugal. Unlike her older brother, Maria did not adapt quickly, and the strangeness of the language and customs made her miserable. Just as she was becoming adjusted, at age 16, she discovered a lump on her neck, and began her struggle with deadly non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Shortly after Maria's treatment for cancer started, her diabetic mother died at age 35. Both Maria's priest and her father suggested that her mother's death was caused by grief over her daughter's cancer, and as a result the author began a long struggle with a deep sense of guilt. The frequent and lengthy hospital stays required by her treatment temporarily halted Maria's schooling. She had hated her classes, and held the childlike thought that she had brought cancer on herself by wishing she had chicken pox so she could stay home from school for a while.

Advertisement

Her treatment involved such painful and unsettling procedures as surgery and chemotherapy, even more frightening for a young person than for an adult. During the fear and loneliness of that lengthy therapy, she gradually developed trusting personal relationships with her nurses and other caregivers. "It Gets Better!" includes tributes written by her medical team; they movingly describe what caring for the author as a teenager meant to them.

The author has been in remission since she was 18 years old and is now in her mid-30s. She decided to write "It Gets Better!" in order to help young people diagnosed with cancer to cope, to remind medical caregivers of the long-lasting effects of their actions on those they care for, and to enable other readers to deepen their understanding of the human experience. "It Gets Better!" can help medical and nursing students better understand the importance of kindness in medical treatment, and can show families the importance of their support in cancer treatment.

Maria attributes her recovery not only to the excellent medical care she received, but also to the loving tenderness that her doctors and nurses bestowed on her during her journey through fear, anger, and sadness. She named her daughter after her principal physician, Dr. Cathy Rosenfield.

These days, the author is living a normal, happy life with her loving husband and children, but the possibility of a recurrence of her cancer remains a shadow companion. Maria writes, "I got rid of my fear and decided to get mentally healthy. We can't live a happy life when we are scared. I had to tell myself, 'If I get cancer again, I will have to fight it again; and if it is worse, I will fight harder again. I want to live.'"

Advertisement