June 5, 2020

Student Liza Pequeño beats terminal cancer diagnosis, finds new life

Liza Pequeño’s doctor told her she’d have a year to live. Five years later, she’s getting a bachelor’s degree in criminology. 

Video story by Matt Woods
Text story by Monica Obradovic
Art by Kayla Shepperd

Before Sept. 17, 2015, Webster student Liza Pequeño was well prepared to die.

It’d been eight months and five days since her doctors diagnosed her with adenocarcinoma. As a cancerous tumor spread throughout her abdomen, she planned her funeral. She exacted how much her son Roman, 20 at the time, should save for his 5-year-old autistic sister Maddalyn’s prom dress. Pequeño’s life insurance would be split up among the two. Her sister would take care of Maddalyn. Pequeño would be cremated.

Pequeño started to plan for the aftermath of her death soon after she was diagnosed with cancer in January 2015. None of her plans mattered, however, after her doctors called and told her she was cancer free eight months later.

Her doctor enrolled her in a trial drug. Pequeño didn’t know if she had a placebo or the real treatment until Sept. 17, 2015, when her doctor called and said there were no more signs of cancer.

“I’ll always remember that date,” Pequeño said.

Before her diagnosis, Pequeño, a registered nurse, started to notice she had trouble digesting food.

Her doctor thought it was a gluten allergy at first. Footage of a scope in her intestines revealed a tumor blocking the end of her stomach. She instantly started crying when her doctor wouldn’t tell her the news without her family in the room.

“I was 40 years old at the time,” Pequeño said. “I still had things I wanted to do.”

The doctors said there was nothing they could do. Surgery wasn’t an option. The tumor had grown into a major artery that fed into Pequeño’s liver.

Pequeño quickly started to lose weight. She talked less. She went through 20 rounds of chemo and five different chemo drugs. She had no eyebrows or eyelashes.

Clumps of hair stuck to her fingers when she ran her hand across her head. In an effort for control, she decided to shave it all off. Emotions surged through her gut as she looked at herself in the mirror.

“I felt like a ghost in my own body,” Pequeño said. “I thought, ‘This can’t be me.'”

She remembers her doctor’s eyes. He closed them as he told her he didn’t see her life lasting another 12 months. Any time she had left she’d spend in chemo.

She didn’t stay with that doctor for much longer.

As stubborn as she is, Liza said, there was a point when she thought she’d die. At night as she drifted to sleep, she wondered if that’s what it felt like to be in a coffin; darkness closing in like the walls of an MRI.

Some days she’d sit and stare at the same spot on a wall for 16 hours. She called it “hibernating.”

“I would totally disappear from my friends and family and hibernate just so I could gather the strength to get up and have an Ensure,” Pequeño said.

She felt like her emotions were wiped away. She didn’t care about anything but for one exception.

She kept repeating the same phrase to everyone around her.

“I have to survive this. I cannot leave my daughter behind.”

It was that thought that drove her to fight her disease. 

After the trial drug rid her cancer, Pequeño underwent surgery that removed 80% of her stomach to prevent the cancer from coming back.

Now, Pequeño said she sees life differently. She has an appreciation for the smaller things. She can sit and watch her daughter play and get in awe of it, where before she said she might’ve been a little less patient. She’ll go to Creve Coeur Lake and take photos of sunsets.

It’s that mentality that Pequeño’s boyfriend James Cashatt said drew him to her.

“Her experience made her think about the important things in life,” Cashatt said. “She’s made me think about the important things too.”

Cashatt will graduate from Webster soon with his master’s degree. He recommended the school to Pequeño. She’s now working towards a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice just because it interests her. 

Since her cure, Pequeño’s step-sister Jeni Axely said she’s noticed one big way Pequeño has changed.

“She’s more adventurous now,” Axely said. “She’ll do whatever she wants to do.”

Pequeño said she doesn’t try to control things as much anymore. Towards the end of her cancer, her father took her and her sister on a trip to Branson. Pequeño, who said she’s always been terrified of heights, suggested they go ziplining.

Halfway down the line, Pequeño said she decided to release her fears and let go. 

“I put my arms out and realized that life is going to be what it is and I can’t control any portion of it,” Pequeño said. “That’s been my motto ever since. ‘It is what it is.'”

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