When Yulissa Garza was diagnosed with stomach cancer in August 2018, she admits thinking lifelong ambitions might not be possible.
“When you hear the words, ‘You have cancer,’ you don’t consider long-term goals a possibility,” said Garza.
A Finance major at A&M-SA who earned her Associate of Art in Teaching from Northwest Vista, Garza had plans to pursue a career as a high school math teacher. In November 2017 while attending Northwest, she learned the devastating news that her mother was diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer. Garza decided to take time off school and work to care for her. They soon found out she carried a gene called CDH1 mutation or hereditary diffuse gastric cancer.
“Following this news, I tested positive for the gene as well (I had a 50/50 chance of carrying it),” shared Garza. “Those who carry this gene have up to an 80% chance of developing stomach cancer. In August of 2018, I was going to have surgery for something not related to cancer, but my mom pushed for an endoscopy before the surgery, and this is when they found cancer cells in my stomach.”
Fortunately, Garza was diagnosed with Stage 1b cancer. Her doctor recommended having three chemotherapy sessions before a total gastrectomy (removal of the stomach), and three after the surgery. In fact, she and her mother received chemotherapy together, yet her mother had already gone through more than 20 sessions. Though she passed away in February 2019, Garza said they were always close, almost inseparable, and her mother remains her biggest mentor.
After a five-month recovery from open surgery for not only a total gastrectomy, but a myomectomy to remove fibroids, she found herself pursuing goals she had before her journey with cancer. In January 2020, she attended her first class at A&M-San Antonio, and completed an impressive 41 hours within the spring, summer, and fall semesters of 2021. Garza said she enjoyed the smaller environment where she would recognize others and share multiple classes with fellow classmates.
“After my battle with cancer and being healthier, I applied to A&M-SA,” said Garza. “My brother was about to graduate, and I saw how much he enjoyed attending this University, so after my brother’s recommendation, it was an easy choice.”
Garza currently seeks a job in the banking industry and hopes to buy her first home once she has established her career. She also aims to focus on her health and help bring awareness to stomach cancer and the CDH1 gene because, although it is a rare mutation, it may affect multiple people in a family.
Garza believes her experience as a cancer survivor has strengthened her goals in life, both long and short term, and inspired her to live life to the fullest.
“It stood out to me how much more spontaneous I am with every decision I make. I live every day with enjoyment because some aren’t lucky enough for a tomorrow,” Garza said. “Don’t be afraid to say ‘Yes,’ and don’t live life vicariously. Do what makes you happy. Try a new hobby. Apply for that job that seems impossible. Go on that road trip. Do it all.”