Cristina Tabernilla

When she woke with an unusual pain under her right arm on a hot Sunday morning in 2012, Cristina Tabernilla called her doctor. She was in his office on Monday. He suspected cancer and quickly scheduled a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy.

“I’m in the history books,” she says. “I had the first mammogram at Harris Health’s Smith Clinic. The equipment was calibrated on me.”

When cancer was confirmed, she cried. Growing up in the Philippines, her memories of cancer were bleak. She felt her energy drain. “I was like a melting candle,” she remembers. Though her husband was out of the country, she wasn’t alone. As manager of a personal care home, she was supported by the staff and residents’ families. One family even arranged to fly her husband back to Houston.

Cristina was reluctant to share her diagnosis with her family, especially her mother; she didn’t want her loved ones to worry. Her mother surprised her, “Don’t worry, daughter. You are in the United States of America where you will get good care. Maybe this is the plan of the Lord. It’s not an accident that you are there.”

“My heart jumped for joy,” Cristina says. “She became my inspiration.”

Her journey hasn’t been easy. She had surgery the day before Thanksgiving 2012, and then started chemotherapy. Because of a low blood count, she was admitted to Harris Health Ben Taub Hospital for a few days. She has dealt with fatigue and loss of appetite. When her hair fell out, she cried more. Based on BRCA results, a second, preventive mastectomy is scheduled.

Cristina has a simple approach to her disease. “First, I thank God, then I think positive. I tell other patients, ‘You have cancer, but you can still smile.’”

About oncologists and staff at Smith Clinic and Ben Taub, she says, “I love them. They are professionals, the greatest people, the most caring people anyone could imagine. God guided me to these people. They tell me I can make it. They tell me they’ll take care of me. My heart belongs to Smith Clinic. I am so thankful to them for giving me a new life.

“I also give credit to my family and friends who inspired me. This experience has made me a stronger, better woman. I never knew my life could be enriched because of cancer.”

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