Seeing life as a gift

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Survivor story > Ortiz believes a second opinion saved her life

By Gina Velasquez

Lilliemae Ortiz is one of the lucky ones — she is a survivor. She has fought a battle against pancreatic cancer, which carries only a 6 percent survival rate, according to national statistics.

First diagnosed in 2005, she was struck with fear, but she said her deep faith gave her the courage to fight. “What a shock that diagnosis was — it was unreal and unbelievable as cancer happens to other people, not me, ” she said.

The tumor was found when she went to an annual checkup and it turned out to be cancerous. Within a few weeks, surgery was performed, but was unsuccessful due to the tumor being wrapped around an artery, which imposed too much of a risk. She was given three months to live.

“The worst part of that diagnosis was dealing with how I was going to have to say goodbye to my children,” Ortiz said. She has a 34-year-old daughter and a 25-year-old son.

Seeking a second opinion, she and her family continued a rigorous search for treatment options and eventually found a doctor in Birmingham, Ala. who was conducting clinical trials. The doctor prescribed her daily regimens of radiation to shrink the tumor so it would detach from the artery and make it safer to remove.

Two months later, the tumor detached and a subsequent surgery was successful.

“The surgery was the day after my birthday, I consider that day my second birthday,” Ortiz said.

Along with the tumor, parts of her pancreas, intestines and gall bladder were removed.

After two months of recovery from the actual surgery, Ortiz began six months of chemotherapy. “The entire year was spent just trying to survive,” she said. “I relied heavily on the support of loved ones.”

Ortiz, 62, is now cancer-free and is involved with cancer societies. “I believe that is why I am still alive, is to help people.”

Strangers have somehow heard of Ortiz’s battle and often contact her for advice or prayers and moral support.

Ortiz spent 12 years on Pojoaque Valley School Board, and two years as president before her diagnosis. She continues to volunteer for several local organizations and has changed her lifestyle since her battle with cancer.

“People say, ‘it’s good to see you,’ and I say ‘It’s good to be seen.”

Her advice to those struggling with this type of cancer is to keep family and friends close for support and have trust and faith in the doctors. “Always seek second opinions,” she said.

Ortiz said if she had not fought for a second opinion she would not be here today.