For more years than he can recall, North Fork resident Mike Garcia, 56, has been participating in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life event by joining any team in need of help. However, this year's relay event, which will be held May 18-19 at Wasuma Elementary, has taken on a whole new meaning for him. Garcia will be a participant of "Nancy's Fight Crew," a team formed by his daughters, Reinna, 27, and Felice, 25, to honor their mother, Nancy, 54.
"I never thought it would be this close to home, right next to me," Mike said.
It was only about a month ago that Nancy finished her last round of radiation and almost a year since Nancy first began experiencing symptoms of stomach cancer. Food didn't seem to be settling well and Nancy, not one to rush to the doctor, said she procrastinated on going to the doctor. Nancy said it must have been an angel that finally convinced her to seek medical attention. At first doctors thought it was just acid reflux or an ulcer and put her on medication. When her symptoms didn't clear up, Nancy underwent a colonoscopy and endoscopy. A couple weeks later, the results came back -- Nancy had Stage 2 stomach cancer.
"It was shocking," said Nancy, adding cancer does not run in the family. "I was scared of the unknown and how I was going to discuss it with my family and what their reaction would be."
Reinna was the first person her mother told.
"It was the worst feeling I ever felt," Reinna said. "I'm not married or have kids and I thought she wouldn't be around for that. My dad was kind of in shock and my brothers, who I've never seen cry, were in tears. It was a real shock to our family because she's like the core to our family."
Soon after, Nancy underwent surgery and 70% of her stomach was removed. During surgery doctors found that the cancer was spreading into Nancy's blood vessels, nerves and lymph nodes surrounding her stomach. It was then that doctors realized Nancy had had cancer for a year before experiencing symptoms, and she was re-diagnosed with Stage 3 stomach cancer. Doctors removed the lymph nodes and since then have not found anymore cancer. Once Nancy had healed from surgery, she underwent five rounds of chemotherapy followed by five weeks of radiation.
"It's been hectic," Reinna said. "From when we found out it's been kind of like a blur. We've been going to Fresno, arranging appointments, making sure she has everything."
Felice, who had time off working as a seasonal U.S. Forest Service firefighter, became Nancy's primary caregiver and spent five days a week driving Nancy to and from treatments.
"She's the main priority of our lives right now," Felice said.
However, it seems like nothing can keep Nancy down. Doctors prescribed that she go on six months disability and Nancy said no. Even on treatment days, Nancy, who works in administration at the Sierra National Forest Bass Lake Ranger District, would go into the office and work.
"I wanted to continue with my life and keep busy, because I didn't want this to put me down and go into a depression," Nancy said. "It's been challenging. I've been really pushing myself to get better and think positive and I've had a lot of support from family, friends and co-workers. The support of everybody has been great. I'm not one to keep down."
Both Reinna and Felice said the experience has brought the whole family much closer and they have all been amazed at Nancy's strength.
"From the beginning she's been strong," Reinna said. "At first it scared her, but we told her she's strong, you can do this. We repeated it to her dozens of times. We've never really seen her down or depressed. She's always been positive and strong. If she has an off day, we're there to pick her up. I've never pictured my mom as a weak person. Seeing her in a hospital and hooked up to things makes you see how brave she is and how strong she is. I'm kind of in awe of her of what she can go through and still go to work and cook and bake. She's amazing."
Mike said what carried all of them through this experience was the love and support they felt from those around them, especially from their church family at Our Lady of the Sierra.
"Even if it's the simple support of sending a card or saying a prayer, just knowing you have that support around makes it easier," Mike said. "I tried to find a way to be her (Nancy's) strength. It was kind of hard, but all the help, support and love from people helped to carry the burden."
Because of this life changing experience, Reinna and Felice said they began to be more aware of cancer and how it impacts so many lives.
"Now that I know what it's like to have someone close to me dealing with this, I realize there are other people out there," Reinna said. "It's not just her battling this and going through this."
"It never hits you about this stuff until it happens to someone you know," Felice said.
Reinna and Felice's team, "Nancy's Fight Crew," hopes to raise at least $1,000 for the American Cancer Society. They experienced first-hand what ACS does to help families when the Garcia's received gas cards to help with doctor's visits.
"It's the little things that really help out a lot," Felice said.
The family also hopes to raise awareness.
"They have made great strides towards the battle with cancer," Mike said. "If you heard the 'c' (cancer) word 40 years ago it was a death sentence -- but not now. Raising money for the American Cancer Society and trying to raise awareness is important."
Those interested in donating to Relay for Life or becoming involved can visit relayforlife.org/easternmaderacountyca.
Details: (559) 760-4020 or relayforlife.org/easternmaderacountyca.