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The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance is pleased to announce the winner of the Spring 2018 Scholarship, Sirena Cordova.
Sirena is currently pursuing graduate studies at SUNY Empire, after receiving her bachelor's degree from the college in June 2017. She became the first member of her family to graduate from college, an achievement that became more difficult than she expected as her personal life faced many traumatic events along the way.
As soon as Sirena started her college career, life continued to throw hurdle after hurdle at her family. Her partner lost his job soon after she started her first semester of school, adding a financial strain and a lot of scrambling on her end to ensure bills would be covered. In addition to her full-time position at the Department of Social Services as a caseworker, she took on a second job on top of her duties as a mom and her schoolwork.
After 18 months of such stress, the family thought they were finally catching a break as her partner returned to work. But just a few months later, the family faced turmoil once more that would only continue to grow as Sirena continued her education.
An Unexpected Cancer Diagnosis
In April 2015, Sirena and her family all breathed a bit easier as her partner returned to work. Unfortunately, the relief they felt was short lived. “By October, [my partner] felt a lump in his chest that started as the size of a grape, and by late November, grew into the size of a plum,” Sirena explained in her essay.
Her partner was diagnosed with stage 3 metastatic male breast cancer. Stage 3 cancer typically indicates some spreading has occurred, often entailing metastasis to the lymph nodes. It is considered an advanced stage, and depending on the type of cancer generally also means more limited treatment options are available for the patient. Her partner underwent a double mastectomy, followed by intensive chemotherapy and radiation.
During these months of treatment, her partner couldn’t work, and the family faced the financial strains of treatment on top of their usual expenses. In addition to her full-time job, caring for her kids and attending school, Sirena faced the stress and worry of her partner’s cancer and financial instability. Despite having so much on her plate already, she began an overnight job at a domestic violence safe house four nights each week. Sirena would have to go from her night job right to her job as a caseworker, trying to keep up with her school work when she had free time at her night shift.
“I was constantly tired, irritable and consumed by anxiety. My eyes would twitch from constant stress. But I soldiered on, committed to my responsibilities,” Sirena said.
Fortunately, the family’s fortune started to look up as her partner found out he was in remission in August 2016. He was able to go back to work, Sirena quit her second job, and it seemed she’d be able to go into her final year of college with more ease.
The Hardships of Cancer Recurrence
Sadly, just as soon as life started to go back to normal for the family, they faced even more bad news. Sirena’s partner learned his cancer had returned more aggressively, with spreading to his lungs. He received a stage 4 diagnosis, and he became too weak to even bathe on his own. Sirena became his caregiver and made his medical decisions, in addition to all her normal responsibilities and returning to her second night-time job to cover their additional expenses.
In the midst of this health crisis, her son also received an Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. Fortunately, he was able to seek group therapy to help improve his condition, but it was a struggle to balance one more hardship in the face of so much already. But in the face of it all, Sirena started her final year of college in January and put all she had into her education.
“I threw myself into my studies in between all my appointments and responsibilities because I wanted to finish strong. School saved me from having a nervous breakdown,” Sirena explained. “It allowed me to focus my energy on my essays and discussions, not the traumatic events that kept unfolding in front of me. Doing well in school lifted my spirits, it gave me hope.”
Thankfully, with the new school year, things started to turn around. Her son made progress in his group therapy, finding further support from his brother. After seeking chemotherapy and radiation at a cancer treatment center in Boston, Sirena’s partner went into remission, though the family doesn’t take his current condition for granted. “I take his cancer day by day at this point,” Sirena said. “He is in remission today.”
Looking Toward a Bright Future
As the family’s health improved, Sirena also saw more positive gains at school and work. She was awarded the 2017 Student Service Award at SUNY Empire for her community work. She was promoted to a senior supervisor at her job. Even though her family had such hardships throughout her college career, Sirena still graduated with a high GPA and became the first in her family to do so.
Now, as she moves ahead with graduate school, Sirena wants to use the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Scholarship to continue making a difference in her community and beyond. “It is my hope that more emphasis is placed on the working poor, systematic racism, incarcerated youth, children of incarcerated parents, rehabilitation for addicts and offenders,” Sirena explained. “My main interest, though, is in the aging-out population of foster care children. I want to innovate change for them so they can succeed with support services.”
“I am proof that despite my circumstances, if you want something bad enough, you can have it. There is no excuse in life, only actions count,” Sirena continued. I have taken responsibility for my life during the highs and lows and want to extend that mentality of perseverance to everyone in my path.”
The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance is honored to present the scholarship to Sirena, who has already dedicated so much of her life to helping others in need. We look forward to hearing about all the positive change she makes in her community and the larger nation.
Applications for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Scholarship for Fall 2018 are now open. If you have had cancer, or have seen a loved one go through a battle with cancer, submit your essay today and receive a chance to win $4,000 toward your college education. The deadline for the Fall 2018 semester is March 31, 2018.