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NEWS | April 26, 2018

Blurred vision: A Soldier’s lonely battle with cancer

By Airman 1st Class Monica Roybal 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

In the midst of dealing with the daily stress of Fort Lee’s Advanced Individual Training program, Wilmarys Roman Rivera was ushered off for a medical consultation after noticing a lump in her breast.

Alone in Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia, Roman Rivera sat in a doctor’s office wrangling thoughts of fear and skepticism; this happens to other people, not her.

The words uttered from her doctor, “I’m sorry, but you have breast cancer,” yanked Roman Rivera from reality, plunging her into a numbing haze of disbelief.

“After I heard those words all sounds were suddenly muffled and all colors became desaturated,” Roman Rivera said. “The air was sucked out of me so abruptly that I couldn’t fully comprehend what I was hearing.”

The 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) tactical power generation specialist, knew she needed a way to express what she could not say aloud. In doing so, she discovered photography could help her display the inner turmoil she suffered throughout her battle with breast cancer.

Despite taking a hit with the devastating diagnosis one month before AIT graduation, Roman Rivera said she was determined to complete the program.

“I had to overcome many obstacles before I was finally accepted into the Army and I didn’t want to just walk away after all my hard work,” said Roman Rivera. “I think getting diagnosed during basic training and AIT actually helped me because I was so busy and distracted that I didn’t have time to really think about having breast cancer.”

Roman Rivera’s hard work paid off, and she completed the program. But, instead of attending her AIT graduation ceremony with her fellow Soldiers, she underwent a double mastectomy surgery with her parents and her best friend, who flew from Puerto Rico, by her side.

“I was fighting more for my family than for me,” said Roman Rivera, “My parents would ask me how I felt and my answer was always, ‘good’ because I couldn’t handle hearing the sadness in my mom’s voice.”

After recovering from surgery, Roman Rivera began bi-weekly chemotherapy sessions that continued for more than two months. Since she was alone and away from home, her parents flew in from Puerto Rico for every session to care for and support their daughter.

“I started to become frustrated with not knowing how to talk about the pain I was dealing with and being so dependent on my parents for every little thing,” said Roman Rivera. “I needed to find a way to express my feelings because I wasn’t in any support group, but I needed to find a way to let it all go.”

Having already established a career teaching university-level photography classes in Puerto Rico, Roman Rivera turned to what she knew best and picked up her camera. Yet, new unforeseen obstacles came her way while taking photos this time.

“I remember crying as I was taking photos,” said Roman Rivera. “I was so angry that the chemotherapy blurred my vision so much that I couldn’t tell if my photos were in focus, but then I realized that’s showing what I’m actually seeing. That’s telling my story.”

Roman Rivera continued to document her story with blurred vision for more than three months and remained dedicated to her newfound project.

“Constantly thinking about what I wanted to create and what feeling I wanted to express kept me busy,” said Roman Rivera. “Taking multiple photos and editing was distracting me from what was happening to me at the time.”

Concentrating on how to tell her story shifted her focus from surgery, recovery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which Roman Rivera described as the worst pain she has ever experienced.

“The pain I felt while recovering from the double mastectomy surgery kind of prepared me for the chemo and radiation,” said Roman Rivera. “I knew if I could handle that recovery pain then I could get through the rest.”

Although her parents were there every two weeks to take care of her, Roman Rivera said she hid her true struggle from her parents, especially when her mother began to question God and her personal religious beliefs. It was an emotionally lonely fight for Roman Rivera.

“Even though I was lying to my parents, I felt like it was the right thing to do,” said Roman Rivera. “I think it was also right for my art. Keeping it all inside forced me to dig deeper into my feelings.

Roman Rivera said she openly shares her story and her photos to convey the reality of battling cancer and hopes to encourage women to regularly perform self-examinations. 

In April 2018, Roman Rivera celebrates three years of being cancer-free. She said she can now look at the photos with a sense of happiness and accomplishment.

“I was surprised at how the photos changed my perspective of myself,” said Roman Rivera. “My art let me, let it all go. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but I still wanted to show everyone.”