Interview with a breast cancer survivor

Isabella Santoro

Anchor Staff Writer

Photo by Isabella Santoro

In an exclusive with the wonderful and expressive Gloria, one of the nine children of the late Gloria Gemma, talked about her experiences with her diagnosis of breast cancer and the Gloria Gemma Foundation. She also spoke on Flames of Hope throughout the years, which is a three day event taking place in the beginning of October annually in downtown Providence. Check out the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Foundation website to see the programs they have and the ways in which you can support this beautiful organization.

Gloria spoke on how the foundation has been impacted by COVID saying, “We’ve realized that people can learn virtually so easily, and so that’s been the positive of COVID for the foundation. I think we will see more of this next year, and so it’s good because even if COVID goes away, some people are in positions where they can’t go to the foundation center. We have book clubs that are online, there is a prayer group, and there’s just so many things [to do] if you look on the website. It helps people realize that we are also mind, body, and spirit. You can learn so much from the website!”

Gloria’s most profound memory is of the first Flames of Hope she went to when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I didn’t just go as one of my mother’s nine children, but as her daughter that bore the same diagnosis. I had a whole different perception of the event because now I was one of the survivors. It was just overwhelming to me because I had four children, they were little, and my youngest at four years old was in preschool. I also had a six, eight, and ten year old, so my kids were really young and I was really scared. I didn’t want them to know that I was scared because that wouldn’t be very productive. So I’ll never forget that Water Fire because that was the first time I was carrying a torch for being a survivor and because I was one of my mother’s nine children. I was also carrying the torch as I was going through treatment for breast cancer. I actually had a talk at the State House that night and I got up and talked about my experience. And I remember at the time, my daughter was six years old and she used to sleep in my bed a lot, so she saw me go through the surgery and she knew I had to wake up super early for radiation. One day she woke up and she said ‘Mom, I wish I could do this for you.’ It was so insightful for a six year old to say that to me.”

Speaking on behalf of carrying the torch at Flames of Hope, Gloria says, “There is love and there is an openness. There’s a feeling of connection to all the people around you, [including] the survivors and their families. We’re all on the same team. There’s not many things in life that are like that. We are so divided in politics and our opinions and all this conflict in the world, which is exhausting. When you’re carrying the torch, it unifies all the people around you and there is this incredible love. There is no conflict and we are one.”

Gloria and I talked of her mother and how she was a very humble and giving person who had a very hard childhood. She lived her life with a very strong faith and was very generous. Gloria cited her mother as giving of time and not materialistic. “She was always feeding people. Our house was always full and always open to anyone. She was very nonjudgmental and would let anyone into her world. I think the foundation speaks to that because it’s open to all people regardless of who they are. There is no discrimination and that is beautiful. She would be so incredibly grateful and I think that she would believe that this was a calling from God.”

Mastery Martial Arts held an event where Breast Cancer survivors could break a board as a symbol of being a survivor. Gloria described this event as empowering. “It was a way of breaking through the diagnosis and getting to the other side. It’s recognizing that there’s a power within you that’s indestructible. For me, that is what it symbolizes. At first you look at the board and I didn’t think I could break it because I’d never taken karate and I’m not strong and how am I going to break this board? This small act of breaking a board symbolizes that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. When you break through the board, you’re breaking through the suffering and the challenges that you’ve gone through. It becomes bigger than life and you feel that you can do anything with the help of others. I think this all speaks to the foundation’s mission as well.”

Gloria describes the emotions of someone newly diagnosed, explaining it is a very overwhelming feeling and a rush of so many emotions. “It is very hard to describe. One of the ways that I found most helpful was to take it”; she said it perfectly, “not even day by day. Take it hour by hour. But I even used to say to take it minute by minute. My advice is to be mindful of the moment and recognize that....well you have to think to yourself, how am I going to get through this moment? You develop this toolbox and I used to talk to my kids about it. Everybody’s toolbox has different tools.”

Gloria deepens the notion of it being very important to take it day by day, as a mother of four. She noted how going to baseball as her son was in little league; how whatever it was they were doing took a lot of strength to be a part of. “So being in the moment, being with family, and remembering that my identity was being a mom. That was what was the most important to me. So I would try to go through the ordinary as much as possible and take each challenging situation one step at a time. This really helped me, not allowing my mind to go into the future but to be present. I would tell myself to stop worrying and tell myself stories because these were generated out of fear, not the reality of it.”

She continued, “I really rooted myself in this philosophy and that really helped. And what also helps are things like yoga or whatever else helps you find your inner peace. And sometimes you have to be selfish too because you can’t take care of the people around you unless you’re coming from a good place. Your insecurities and worries can become a boundless source of energy if you let them. Going through it one step at a time, you start to feel empowered. But this doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time, but eventually you become okay with what is going on. I personally drew strength from a lot of people. My husband was amazing and my children were amazing. I am very grateful for that.”


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