UNT student overcomes freshman-year cancer diagnosis to pursue her dreams

Sierra during her first semester at UNT

Sierra Galvez sat frozen in her chair while the people around her kept talking.

“I’m 18 years old,” she thought.

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion in the small office.

“This is my first year in college.”

She felt like she was watching from the other side of the room as the doctor calmly explained the diagnosis, and her father started crying.

“How is this happening to me?”

After just one semester of studying at UNT, Sierra’s life completely changed. A months-long crescendo of doctor appointments and exams built up to a climax she couldn’t wrap her head around: angiosarcoma. Cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, “angiosarcoma is a rare cancer that starts in the cells that line blood vessels or lymph vessels.” Sierra’s was found in her breast tissue.

Dark clouds on the horizon

Five months before her diagnosis Sierra was just starting at UNT in the Fall of 2016. She was drawn by the great journalism program and its proximity to her hometown of Arlington. She dove headlong into her new life, studying broadcast journalism and bonding with her Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sisters.

By October, Sierra had started noticing pain in her breast, but didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until a November trip to Los Angeles with her mom and aunt that she became concerned. Her breast had gotten hard and tight. When she showed her mom and aunt, their facial expressions made it clear that something was wrong.

After returning from California, Sierra went straight to her doctor. He suggested it may just be an infection and assured her he didn’t think it was cancer, which was Sierra’s immediate fear. He referred her to a breast doctor who ordered various tests and a biopsy was sent to New York City.

Sierra made it through the first week of the Spring semester before she finally heard back about the results that Friday. The doctor asked her to come in immediately. When she arrived with her parents, the doctor cut to the chase and explained her diagnosis.

Sierra shaving her head after chemo therapyWeathering the storm

Due to the fast nature of angiosarcoma, Sierra found herself seeing an oncologist the following Monday. She completed a medical withdrawal from UNT and moved her things out of Clark Hall the very next day; devastated to be closing the chapter of her life she had just begun. She began an aggressive chemotherapy treatment the following week.

The chemo sessions were 78 hours straight. She went to the clinic Monday through Friday for four hours of treatment a day, while continuing the treatment at home. Her body needed breaks from the toxicity of chemo, so after each week of treatment, she would get two weeks off before her next session started.

The doctor warned her that her hair would all fall out within three weeks. It started falling out after just twelve days. After a few days of gradual hair loss, Sierra decided to spend one last weekend in Denton visiting friends, unsure when or if she’d come back to visit once she lost her signature long, dark, curly locks.

She wore a hat for the duration of her two-day visit, and when she took it off on her way home, most of her hair came off with it in one big clump. She knew it was time.

“I did the first cut with the clippers and then I just cried,” Sierra says. “It was probably one of the hardest parts of this whole thing.”

Sierra and her brother

When it rains, it pours

While fighting her own battle with cancer, Sierra’s 21-year-old autistic brother was diagnosed with testicular cancer just three weeks after her diagnosis. Another three weeks later, their grandfather who had been living with them died of natural causes. The Galvez family was faced with adversity over and over again, but it brought them closer to each other.

“When it happened, everyone came together even more and it made a big difference,” Sierra says. “I was always really close to my family, but I think we all just got even closer.”

The support and love that Sierra had while undergoing treatments helped her keep going. She and her brother had chemotherapy from February to June and they both went through surgery. After Sierra’s mastectomy, her brother kept her strong by cracking jokes and telling her “we’re in this together.”

Sierra’s sorority sisters also made sure she felt their support. They hosted fundraisers to help with her medical bills and often sent uplifting messages during treatment.

“I’d go to chemo and sleep and wake up to 12 text messages of ‘we love you, we miss you, keep going, we can’t wait to see you,’” Sierra says. “I really think having so much support is what kept me pushing through.”

Sierra and her sorority sisters

The sun always rises

Sierra was hopeful and looked forward to going back to UNT. After the independence she experienced her first semester, being home and unable to drive herself was frustrating.

“Every day I would just go to the doctor and then go home and be sick, and I couldn’t live like that anymore,” she says.

She was still finishing up radiation therapy when she returned to UNT for the Fall 2017 semester. Adjusting to being back at school was difficult, but with the help of Dean of Students Dr. Maureen “Moe” McGuinness, her transition was manageable.

“Sierra is one of the most resilient students I’ve ever seen,” McGuinness says. “She has been through so much in the past year, but she’s still committed to her degree. I’m so proud of her and can’t wait until the day I get to see her walk across the stage at graduation.”

During the second week of the Fall 2017 semester, Sierra found out she’s officially cancer-free, and three weeks later her brother got the same news. Now she’s planning to have reconstruction surgery this summer and life is finally starting to get back to normal.

“Looking back now at some of the things I went through, I can’t even believe that was me,” Sierra says. “But here I am – living, breathing, standing.”