To say Anna Salvador has mastered the magic of multitasking is a bit of an understatement.
While lying on a gurney in a hospital operating room, just before anesthesia was to be administered, Salvador told her surgeon: “I’ve completed all my assignments for my master’s degree!’’
Dr. Laura Pomerenke, her breast surgeon at UCHealth Memorial Hospital, laughed. Anesthesia was given, and Pomerenke placed a port in Salvador so she could begin receiving a regimen of chemotherapy for breast cancer.
Have you noticed any lumps in your breasts?
A few weeks earlier, during Salvador’s yearly well-woman checkup, her OB-GYN asked: “Anna, have you noticed any lumps on your left breast?’’
At the time, Salvador didn’t think twice about it. She was pursuing her master’s degree in organizational development. One of her daughters was about to graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology and linguistics. Another was enrolled in environmental sciences at Stanford. Salvador had also interviewed for a promotion at USAA, where she has worked for 20 years.
Nonetheless, her OB-GYN ordered a diagnostic mammogram after the well-woman checkup in November 2020. Salvador let her boss know she’d be away from her desk for a few hours and she would be right back to work. No big deal.
The diagnostic mammogram went well, but the nearly three-hour wait afterward was agonizing. Then came the news from a doctor: “I am so sorry to say, this is breast cancer.’’
Salvador wept and shook uncontrollably. The doctor said she would need a biopsy and referred her to UCHealth’s Dr. Pomerenke. Salvador, a devout Catholic who worships the Virgin Mary, relied on her faith.
“When I got the biopsy, I was praying the rosary. ‘Please, please don’t test positive for the cancer.’’’
Tests showed Salvador had three types of cancer: HER2, estrogen and progesterone. Pomerenke relayed the results directly, but compassionately. The only thing Salvador could say was: “Oh my God; oh my God.
“What are you talking about? It doesn’t run in my family.’’
Developing a plan of care for triple-positive breast cancer
Dr. Pomerenke and a multi-disciplinary team quickly developed a plan of care.
“She had what is called a triple-positive (breast) cancer, one that is driven by hormones and the HER2 protein,’’ Pomerenke said. “That gives us three targets for treatment and these patients can have excellent results with therapy.
“Anna was seen in our multidisciplinary clinic, where she met with a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and support staff — all at one visit. This enables us to facilitate treatment and provide the most comprehensive care possible,’’ Pomerenke said.
Without question, there will be bad days after you learn you have cancer. Salvador has surely had them. She wasn’t sure she should continue seeking a promotion at work since she didn’t feel well. But like many who have received devastating news about their health, she has relied on her daughters, Nadine and Mikaela; family, friends and unbreakable faith. She’s also followed her doctor’s recommendations. A single mom, Salvador has had no choice but resilience.
Daughter Nadine, 24, had earned two bachelor’s degrees in psychology and linguistics and a master’s in linguistics from the University of Colorado and has a job as a clinical research coordinator on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Mikaela, now a senior studying environmental science at Stanford, has been accepted into a master’s program at Stanford to study earth systems. She’ll travel to the Philippines and Hawaii this summer for internship programs.
“I was crying after the diagnosis and you know how it is with cancer patients, your mood – sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down,’’ Salvador said. “So, Mikaela and I would cry for a couple of hours and then Nadine would come in and say, ‘Mom, you’ve got to stop, you’ve got to stop. You can’t use your cancer as a crutch.
“And she was telling me, ‘Mom, you have to finish your master’s. And we said, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a picture of all three of us in the living room, all master’s graduates?’’
Nadine would not allow her mom to cry for more than 5 or 10 minutes. Mikaela, who was studying online at home because of the pandemic, would allow her mom to call all she wanted. Together, they made a great supportive team.
The day after she received the port, Salvador met with four UCHealth cancer doctors on the campus of UCHealth Memorial Hospital North. The physicians developed a treatment plan that included radiation and chemotherapy. One of the physicians mentioned that she would lose her hair.
During the meeting, Salvador’s phone blew up. She received multiple phone calls but didn’t answer since she did not recognize the phone number. Then, after multiple unanswered calls, Salvador’s boss called and said another senior-ranking leader at USAA was trying to call and she should answer.
Salvador cried to her boss.
“I am going to lose my hair!’’ she cried. “I’m going to need to go on short-term disability.’’
Her boss, Salvador recalled, told her to calm down and pick up the phone. Good news was on the way.
Salvador had been promoted to a “senior’’ in the banking division. The single mom who had raised two very smart young ladies was being rewarded for her own good work. Still, she worried about being on short-term disability and not being able to immediately begin in the new role.
Her employer, USAA, gave her full support after cancer diagnosis
USAA, Salvador said, could not have been more supportive.
“They said, ‘Take all of the time that you need. We will wait for you,’’’ Salvador said.
In the course of two days, Salvador had completed her master’s assignments, received a promotion and a treatment plan – radiation and chemotherapy. Starting Dec. 31, 2020, Salvador began chemotherapy. She had infusions once every three weeks for nearly 18 months. She still had a master’s thesis to write and on Feb. 1, 2021, she returned to work full time.
“I had to keep on going, even if I didn’t feel good, and I had to have the COVID vaccine, and it made my immune system even weaker.’’
Salvador worked 10-hour shifts, Monday through Thursday, so she could take Fridays off for the chemotherapy treatment, which lasted six to eight hours.
“You know how you feel when you are so sick to your stomach and you can barely move all the time? Oh my goodness, and then you feel like throwing up. It was pretty intense. I would say I didn’t feel good and then mix that up with the COVID vaccine requirements too.
“The nurses were spectacular, they were awesome. The doctors, spectacular. I have no complaints whatsoever. The hard part of the chemo for me, this was the emotional state and seeing my hair fall off.’’
Nadine insisted that her mom continue to walk her dog named “Monster’’ and as hard as it was, she did. One day, Nadine shaved her mother’s head.
“It was all intense,’’ Salvador said. Despite the difficulty, she said the rosary and attended Mass weekly at St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church.
Having support from family and friends makes a positive difference for patients, Pomerenke said.
“I love it when patients have the attitude that they are not going to give up or stop doing what they enjoy. Anna personifies that by succeeding in her education, career and personal life, all while going through cancer treatment,’’ Pomerenke said. “She is so fortunate to have had such great support from her employer and family and is a wonderful example of fortitude and perseverance.’’
Though Salvador had been promoted to “senior” soon after her cancer diagnoses, she learned of another opportunity for promotion that she wanted to pursue. She submitted her resume and application with more than 100 other applicants for the manager position.
Two weeks after returning to work in February 2022, she learned she had been promoted again. And two months later, after submitting her thesis about corporate responsibility to Regis University, Salvador received word that she had earned her master’s degree. She finished with 3.9 GPA and no student debt. USAA had paid for her master’s degree.
In August 2021, she began the first of 26 radiation treatments. She was exhausted and weak.
“My body was giving up, and I was forcing myself to walk with my dog. That is the one thing that Nadine kept saying, you have to walk Monster (her dog),’’ Salvador said.
Despite earning her master’s degree, seeing her children thrive and earning two promotions, the best news of all came in April 2022 when scans could not detect cancer.
“It’s all clear! It’s all clear!’’ she told her daughters. On March 30, nearly 18 months after her OB-GYN had asked about a lump in her left breast, Pomerenke removed the port from Salvador.
She plans to travel with friends to Fatima in Portugal to give thanks to the Virgin Mary. In December, she will go home to her native Philippines and visit the National Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. She’ll see her mom, her sisters and her nieces, and they’ll celebrate.