Rita Villanueva was getting a massage in August 2018 when she noticed a slight pain in her right breast. She shrugged it off as discomfort from lying face down. The next day, she felt sharp, sporadic breast pain and immediately called her OB/GYN.
At the time, Rita was director of Human Resources at the Children’s Museum of Houston. She considered herself in good health and was diligent about annual mammograms.
Rita had a diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy the next week. On Sept. 6, she was sitting in her office when a nurse from the imaging facility called and asked, “Are you driving?” Right then, she knew she was in for bad news. That’s when she learned she had triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma, one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.
“I was numb and in shock,” recalls Rita. “I couldn’t absorb it, so I asked if we could call my sister, Lollie, who was a science teacher. I knew she would ask the right questions. The nurse explained the diagnosis and immediately counseled me on oncology options.”
Rita openly shared her cancer news with her boss and colleagues and took a six-month leave of absence to focus on fighting for her life.
Treatment happened fast. Surrounded by close-knit family and friends, and under the compassionate care of oncologist Paula D. Ryan, MD, Rita began six months of chemotherapy on Oct. 1, with surgery to follow.
Rita tackled the challenges of chemotherapy with a determined, positive attitude. She even had a champagne party with Lollie and her niece, Luz, to celebrate shaving her head. Rita’s brother-in-law, Reynaldo, became her chauffeur and caretaker.
“I knew I would beat cancer,” says Rita. “I knew my faith, my God, my family and friends were the support system that would and did get me through it.”
Affiliated breast surgical oncologist Diana M. Hook, MD, planned to perform Rita’s surgery a month after her chemotherapy ended. In the meantime, she introduced her to Canopy, a first-of-its-kind cancer survivorship at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center.
Rita and Lollie took a tour, and Rita was immediately impressed by the warm and welcoming volunteers they met. “They gave me a little goodie bag, which was so nice,” Rita says. “I knew then that I wanted to keep checking this place out.”
During treatment, Rita received head scarves and a wig at Canopy at no cost.
Rita rang the bell on her chemotherapy treatments on Valentine’s Day 2019. Next up was a double mastectomy, which she elected to avoid future problems. Always ready for a celebration, Rita hosted her high school girlfriends for a “Bye-bye, boobies” party complete with a decorated pink ribbon cake.
“We had to say goodbye, so they got their own farewell party,” laughs Rita. On March 13, Rita underwent surgery at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands with Dr. Hook.
“Dr. Hook told me what to expect, what to do and not do—so I was prepared,” says Rita. “The Memorial Hermann care team was great at calming me, including the therapy dog that visited me at the hospital.”
She was home the next day with her tribe of helpers ready to do whatever she needed during her short recovery. Again, Rita maintained her positive attitude. “It wasn’t bad,” she says. “They cooked for me. They cleaned my house. They helped care for me. That’s when I knew I could do this.”
When she felt ready, Rita began visiting Canopy. She was fitted for breast prostheses, and she and Reynaldo attended a cooking class together with an Italian chef.
“I was kind of sad when I went back to work because I couldn’t attend more classes at Canopy,” says Rita.
Fast forward to May 2020 when the COVID-19 shutdown at Rita’s office was about to end. She only had a few months until her planned retirement at age 70.
“I thought, why go back and stress out?” laughs Rita. “It was time for a new chapter—a new me.”
Rita wanted to stay busy and kept thinking about Canopy. When the center reopened for in-person visits after COVID-19, she immediately took classes and asked about volunteering.
Rita knew she wanted to give back to Canopy, a place she loves. She is now the volunteer coordinator and the Look Good Feel Better program liaison. She is also certified for prosthesis and wig fittings. Rita loves attending classes like Pilates, Zumba, art, nutrition and mixology.
“I’m grateful every day to enjoy life to the fullest,” says Rita. “I know that I need to take care of myself—both physically and mentally.”