Cancer survivors and caregivers work together to help ‘Unmask the Cure’

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Cancer survivor Kelli Hurtado, of Soboba, was presented with a Champion of Hope award at the annual Survivor & Caregiver Luncheon presented by the Soboba Foundation and the Relay for Life of Inland Empire West July 18. The award is given to speakers for having the courage to share their stories. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo

The annual cancer survivor and caregiver luncheon presented by the Soboba Foundation and the Relay for Life of Inland Empire West welcomed about 150 guests to the Soboba Casino Resort Event Center July 18. The theme for the American Cancer Society event was “Unmask the Cure” and featured the colors and celebration of a Mardi Gras holiday.

“We gather because cancer continues, but together we can make the greatest impact,” the audience was told before the introduction of Champion of Hope award recipient and cancer survivor Kelli Hurtado. The Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians Reservation resident and Tribal Council member shared her cancer journey, which began in February 2019.

When she went to a doctor’s appointment, she saw the clinic was offering $20 gift cards for getting a mammogram so she opted to have one, her first. As soon as the technician scanned her right breast, she found a mass and called Hurtado’s doctor to request more scans. The following month, a biopsy confirmed the doctor’s suspicions – she had HER2 triple positive breast cancer.

“The same cancer my mom had,” Hurtado said. She admits that calling her mom, Kris Hurtado, who at the time was a breast cancer survivor, was a hard call to make. “She kept blaming herself.”

While exploring conventional treatments and trying holistic alternatives, which were very expensive, Hurtado said her stress levels were really high. “I kept thinking I was dying, but I was trying to stay positive for my kids,” she said. “And then my family gets hit hard – my mom’s cancer comes back as Stage 4 metastasized breast cancer that had spread to her liver.”

Both women continued with doctors’ appointments and treatments. “My mom was getting worse; the chemotherapy was eating her up” and “I still seemed to be OK doing the holistic treatments, but (the cancer) wasn’t going away.” She said watching her mom suffer was the biggest heartache of her life.

“My mom was strong, she was a fighter,” Hurtado said. “I thought she was going to pull through this but December 1, 2019, my mom lost her battle with cancer.”

She said her entire family was devastated and she was terrified about her own health. After her mother’s funeral, Hurtado began conventional cancer treatments. She felt some relief right away and had a double mastectomy in August 2020 followed by 33 rounds of radiation. “I did not think I was going to make it. The radiation drained me and took so much out of me physically, mentally and spiritually. I believe everyone’s prayers saved me so that I am able to stand here today and say I am cancer free – I am a survivor.”

Everyone in the audience seemed to relate to the heartfelt speeches by cancer survivors Hurtado and Rochel Harrington, who also was given a Champion of Hope award. Both speakers evoked tears for their struggles and applause for their courage.

Harrington was a manager with American Cancer Society, dedicating her life to fighting cancer and very active with the Relay for Life program for Imperial County. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, clear cell ovarian carcinoma, in March 2015. She finished chemo treatments in December 2015 and maintenance treatments about a year later. She has been in remission for five years.

During the event, caregivers were asked to stand and be recognized for their unwavering support of those with cancer. Riverside resident Lydia Portillo was a caregiver three different times – once for her husband and then for each of her daughters.

Steve Portillo developed skin cancer about 17 years ago. Lydia said he didn’t want her hovering over him but she helped him any way she could, letting him know she was there if he wanted to talk or just have her sit with him. His family continues to make sure he is using sunscreen, wearing a hat, and taking other precautions whenever he is outdoors.

Ten years ago, Portillo’s youngest daughter, Parker Portillo Bills, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma two weeks before her 25th birthday. Three weeks later, Paige Portillo, then 26, discovered she had cervical cancer.

“I was sick for about a year and a half and doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” Paige Portillo said. After seeing her doctor to discuss birth control, she shared the fact her younger sister had cancer. After further tests and her cancer diagnosis, she underwent surgery and began feeling better right away.

Portillo said because her daughters were going through their cancer fights at the same time, she had to make herself stay strong for them. Working full time at SoCal Gas, she said her boss Sandy Patrick was very understanding and offered to talk to Parker, becoming a mentor to her through her treatments. Patrick advised her to share her story with others because “you need all the support you can get.”

“The most important thing to me was just to be there for them,”Portillo said. “I told them ‘if I could, I’d take your place, but I can’t’ and they understood.”

Parker didn’t know if she would be able to have children because they didn’t have time to screen and harvest her eggs before cancer treatments began but she has two boys now, Portillo shared. After their successful treatments, the sisters started doing Relay for Life events and Paige is now on the organization’s committee.

“I’ve met a lot of great people,” she said. Her team – Lymphomaniacs – includes friends and family members from Riverside, Moreno Valley and Jurupa Valley. Paige met Tiffaney Patrick of Moreno Valley through Relay for Life events and they have teamed up together for the past seven years. She was invited to the luncheon as Paige’s guest.

“I started doing community outreach through my church and did Relay one year as a volunteer but the following year I joined the committee,” Patrick, 35, said. “I enjoy it so much. I know a lot of people from church who have been affected by cancer as well as my father-in-law. I just want to do my part to help in any way I can.”

After lunch was served, each guest was given a die-cut colored bag with a glow stick to activate and place inside for a Luminaria Ceremony. Lights were lowered and family members walked across the stage with messages to honor a loved one that lost their cancer battle, followed by a moment of silence. The luminarias are homemade paper lanterns lit in honor or remembrance of a life touched by cancer. It is a major part of every Relay for Life event.

The Survivor Champion of Hope award was given to Susie Warner from Rancho Santa Margarita, who is a member of Team Pledge and has helped put on the annual Golf Classic at Golden Era Golf Course in San Jacinto for the past 10 years. The Caregiver Champion of Hope award was given to Christy Eiman of Mammoth Lakes, who helps with local Relay functions. Wings of Hope plaques were presented to the families of longtime Relay for Life supporters Brenda Rowe and Rose Salgado.

Rowe started volunteering with the first Relay For Life in San Jacinto 16 years ago and continued to work with the nonprofit as a lead volunteer until her passing from cancer in January. Salgado, a member of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, was a strong tribal and community leader who battled cancer more than once. She did not let the disease define her and continued to volunteer and champion many causes throughout her lifetime. She died in May.

“This event would not happen without the generous support of the Soboba Foundation,” American Cancer Society Senior Community Manager Cathi Hill-Baker said. “For 13 years they have gifted cancer survivors at the annual survivor luncheon benefiting the Relay for Life cancer survivors and caregivers from the valley and surrounding areas. Hosting this event alongside me for 13 years is Inland Empire Lead Volunteer Billie Jo Williams from Menifee who spends many volunteer hours putting the event together – from the centerpieces, the program, and every single detail. She is the lead on this luncheon.”

Other volunteer committee members who helped with this year’s luncheon were Lisa Avne, Robert Baker, Lamarr Daniels, Shelly Reinhart, Chrissy Rohlmeier and Connie Vazquez. The event also served as a fundraiser when guests were asked to donate to the “Tree of Change” with 100% of the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society to fund research to find a cure. The incentive to give was printed on a card inside a mesh money pouch that could be hung from a small “tree” set up to for the event. “If we don’t change, we don’t grow and if we don’t grow then we’re not really living” it read.

The Relay for Life movement is dedicated to helping communities attack cancer. Through funds donated, time given, or awareness raised, communities are teaming up – virtually or in person – to make a difference.

This year’s Relay for Life of Inland Empire West will be held Aug. 14 from 3 to 9 p.m. at Ontario Carpenters Union Training Center, 3250 E. Shelby St. in Ontario. For more information or to register for the event, contact Shelly Reinhart at (909) 908-8594 or Shellytap@yaoo.com or visit www.relayforlife.org/InlandEmpireca. For more information on cancer resources and services, www.cancer.org or (800) 227-2345.