Written by Ernesto Rivera
Veronica Esparza said she first felt a lump on her breast in Oct. 2011, but did not feel a lump in her throat. She initially thought it was normal, she recalled. Friends and family told her it could not possibly be breast cancer because she was too young. They were wrong.
At 20, Veronica Esparza, a psychology major and forward/guard for the Lady Jaguars basketball team, felt like her whole life was ahead of her. But at a doctor’s visit in November she said terror began to surround her.
“I was nervous because she looked at me with this face that you don’t want to see coming from a doctor,” she said. “It was scary, nobody wants to hear something like that. I’ll never forget the look on her face.”
Esparza said that after an ultrasound her doctor said she had a rare type of breast disease. She was given two options, take a sample of it and wait months for test results or immediate surgery.
“My doctor recommended me getting the surgery because what I had was growing really fast,” she said.
Esparza said she was afraid she might die.
“Nobody in my family has breast cancer, it’s still a sensitive subject when we talk about it,” she said. “I remember it was a Thursday night and I was so scared because I was trying to go to sleep and it was really big and I could tell it just wasn’t normal.”
Esparza said she felt comfortable with women’s basketball coach Darnell Cherry because of his family’s history with breast cancer.
“When I was feeling down, he would motivate me to do better and just get right back up and not fall behind. He was very inspirational. He helped me look at the positive instead of the negatives. He helped me realize that it’s a blessing that I’m still here,” she said.
Cherry said he could not believe it when he first heard Esparza’s diagnosis.
“I haven’t really heard of a young lady, as athletic as she is, to develop breast cancer so I was both shocked and sad for her,” he said.
Cherry said his main advice to Esparza was to keep her head up and know that the team was praying for her and there to support her.
“Just from talking to her and letting her know that not only myself but our coaches and our team were really behind her, I think that helped out a lot,” he said.
Elizabeth Jaimes, 19, a criminal justice major, said she felt numb when she first heard the news about her friend and former teammate.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I hear about these kinds of things all the time but when she told me what the lump turned out to be it seemed surreal and I didn’t want to accept it.”
November was filled with an air of uncertainty, Esparza said.
“I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know if the surgery was going to change anything,” she said.
On December 12 Esparza had her surgery to remove the cancerous cyst. Esparza spent three days in the hospital, after a five-hour surgery.
“Waking up and heading to my surgery was fine, I wasn’t nervous,” she said. “It wasn’t until they put the IV in me that it hit me. I was scared but I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out.”
Jaimes said she had to do whatever it took to help Esparza through her terrifying situation. She went with her friend to doctor appointments and sat through the surgery to make sure she was okay.
“I honestly was really scared for her because if this surgery didn’t pull through that means she’d be taking all sorts of medications,” she said. “That’s the last thing I wanted because she needed to get better fast and play the game we both love to play.”
Esparza said this was her first surgery ever and had never even been in a hospital before.
“I knew I was going under and I was having those ‘what if?’ questions going through my head,” she said.
Groggy from medication, Esparza said she felt lost, exhausted and in agony when she came out of her surgery.
“I was in so much pain, all I remember is that I couldn’t cry,” she said. “It was so painful that I just couldn’t.”
Esparza said the surgery was successful, but she may never be out of the woods.
“Various doctors told me it was a rare breast cancer disease and even though they took the cyst out, I have a huge chance of getting it again when I’m older,” she said. “So what I’m doing now is I’m living my life.”
Surviving breast cancer opened Esparza’s eyes to so many things and has made her think dramatically differently about her life.
“I realized I could do two things. I could be depressed and cry about it, and it was that bad, or I could get up, work hard and be an inspiration to others,” she said. “Just because something this bad happens to you doesn’t mean you have to stop and you can keep going and that’s exactly what I did.”
Despite a successful surgery, not being able to play basketball until January was painful and frustrating. Esparza even disobeyed doctor’s orders to be on bed rest to catch the Lady Jags’ first home game.
“I felt like I needed to be there because I am part of the team and I wanted to show support for my girls and hopefully I could inspire them to play harder,” Esparza said. “Coach Cherry just looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy you should be in bed.’”
Going against doctor’s orders again, Esparza began practicing three weeks after her surgery.
“I practiced by myself because I wanted to be ready when I came back,” she said.
Esparza finally got the doctor’s okay to play again and came back to the team at the end of January.
“I felt like I was me again because basketball is a huge part of who I am, it’s a sport I’ve been playing since I was a kid,” she said.
Cherry said he was worried that Esparza had come back to the team so soon.
“Once the doctors cleared her and our trainers cleared her as well, I knew she was good to go,” he said. “It took her a minute to get back into it but she did and she did just fine.”
Esparza said that even though it was great being back, things were not the same.
“It was hard for me to breathe and it was scary to know that if I get hit I could open up my wound,” she said. “I didn’t let my fear hold me back and I wanted to show the girls that just because I had surgery, don’t treat me any differently.”
Cherry said it felt great seeing Esparza pull through so quickly.
“I was glad that, first of all, she got all the cancerous cells out of her body and she didn’t have to have her breast removed so it was great,” he said.
Jaimes said that she felt a huge weight taken off her shoulders when Esparza came back to team.
“I was relieved and excited to see her play,” she said. “She was at her best skills wise and I wanted her to show others that she’s a fighter, and despite her situation she pulled through,” she said.
Cherry said Esparza had already been a mature young lady before her ordeal.
“I just saw her grow up a lot,” he said. “She matured not only as a player but also as a person. I think her having gone through that has put a lot of things in perspective, like you can’t take life for granted.”
Before her surgery, Esparza was looking to transfer to a university basketball program and held basketball as a higher priority than school.
“Now I’m just focusing on my education,” she said. “I’m more serious about school now and I’m more focused on what I want to do. Basketball might not get me there, but school will.”
Esparza said she’s still unsure of what she wants to do in the future, but hopes it will involve basketball and her experience as a breast cancer survivor.
“I know I just want to do something to help others and inspire them to do their best at something,” she said.
Esparza said her doctors say she is doing better and her body is recuperating well.
“Everyone says ‘I’m back’ and nobody even thinks that I’ve gone through that because of how positive I am as a person,” she said.
Esparza’s advice to anyone going through exceptionally difficult times is simply to hold your head up.
“Don’t be ashamed of what you’re going through,” she said. “There are people out there who will listen and will help you with what you’re going through.”
Esparza said she is not going to let her high probability of getting breast cancer again hold her back from anything.
“Tomorrow is never a promise and knowing that is what makes me want go on,” she said.
Esparza said that despite having to miss school and go through surgery she managed to pass all her classes.
“I’m thankful for what happened, actually, I thank God every day that I’m still here. I’m happy we caught it on time before it was too late. Everything happens for a reason, I just live everyday.”
Jaimes said Esparza fights for what she believes.
“Veronica Esparza is a special and beautiful young lady with a kind heart who is always willing to help others in anyway she can, a great listener who puts loved ones before herself,” she said.
“Veronica is an inspiration to us all.”