We met Mary Jaramillo at this year’s Standup for the Cure event in Newport Beach, where she was joining other breast cancer survivors in paddling, remembering loved ones and encouraging others to get tested. But it was what she had overcome in her life that caught our attention.
Mary was born in Germany, grew up in California and married young. All was well until 1977, when Mary's world was turned upside down.
At just 49 years old, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After fighting a hard battle, she passed away a few years later. Around the same time, Mary also split from her husband, realizing he wasn't the man she'd fallen in love with at 18. So she packed up her things and began working as a hair stylist as a way to make a living. Seven years passed before Mary met her current husband, Jerry Jaramillo.
Due to her family history, Mary regularly went in for mammograms to ensure she too would not lose her life to breast cancer. In 2011, one of those mammograms came back with a spot of concern.
After closer examination, doctors found a lump in the milk duct. Luckily, the cancer was listed as DCIS or stage zero cancer, the best case scenario. Due to her family history and the threat of another scare in the future, Mary opted for a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Everything went according to plan and Mary, it seemed, was in the clear with no further treatment necessary.
A year went by, with Mary returning to business as usual, when she noticed some unusual bleeding and went in for a colonoscopy. This time she was not so lucky—she was diagnosed stage two anal cancer.
"It's a shocking thing and you're sort of going through a cloud because you're trying to figure out what you're supposed to do," says Mary. "It's the unknown."
With little other choice, Mary braved the unknown and began radiation and chemotherapy treatment. She underwent a six-week course of radiation, in addition to two one-week chemotherapy sessions. The treatment proved effective and asides from a thinner head of hair and blotchy skin, Mary began to feel like herself again.
At the time of Mary's diagnosis, her friend and pastor Blaine "Sumo" Sato was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The two went through treatment together, offering moral and emotional support to one another. Sumo did not fare as well as Mary and lost his fight to cancer at age 55, leaving behind a family and his congregation.
"I do have survivor's guilt because he did so much for so many: here, in Hawaii, all over the world," says Mary. "But I also see it as he did so much and God said, 'Come on home, you've done enough.'"
For Mary, her journey through life is not complete. So at last year's Stand Up for the Cure, she was encouraged to get back on a board.
With weaker muscles, she mounted her paddleboard and surprising herself by completing the entire loop around the Newport Dunes course. She paddled for herself, for Sumo, and for friends and strangers whose lives have been touched by cancer.
This year, Mary begins her 60th lap around the sun. She's been through a lot but maintains a positive attitude. She's been healthy for a year and a half now and through regular check-ups is hoping to reach the five-year "cancer-free" mark. She's styling hair again, accompanying her husband to surf and SUP events to take photographers, dog sitting, playing tennis and occasionally going for easy paddles.
"We're getting to a point where cancer hopefully won't be a big deal and it won't be a death sentence," says Mary. "I just want to really shout out early diagnosis, regardless of how old you are or if you have it in your family. Get tested."