Facing Breast Cancer: Couple Says, 'Miracles Do Happen'

photo of Ana Gospodinoff and her family at birthday celebration

Ana Gospodinoff calls her husband, Victor, her hero and the best caregiver she could ever have. Victor calls her a living miracle. Together, they are telling Ana’s cancer story to as many people as they can, to inspire others to fight back and never lose hope.

‘Tell me what I have to do’

The day after Thanksgiving 2008, Ana woke up in her home in Miami with a terrible headache and vomiting. She quickly became so weak that Victor didn’t think he could get her to the hospital on his own. He called 911.

Until then, Ana had rarely ever been sick. She was 39 years old, healthy and active – she’d played tennis with friends a few days earlier. She ate a healthy diet and kept busy taking care of the couple’s 3 children ages 3, 7 and 9.

Doctors suspected meningitis, an infection of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be fatal, and Ana and Victor were worried. But scans found something much, much worse. Ana had 2 tumors in her brain, one in the front and one in the back, and the doctors were pretty sure more tests would confirm it was cancer.

When he heard that, Victor says his knees began to buckle. But Ana stayed calm.

She told the doctor, “You don’t know what I have yet, so you don’t know what I have to do to get better. Once you know, just tell me what I have to do to get better, because I’m too good a mother to stop being a mom.”

Focusing on 3%

The next 2 days were a blur of testing. Ana was diagnosed with an aggressive type of breast cancer. Her primary tumor was in her right breast, and it had spread to the brain, causing the 2 tumors there. She also had spots of cancer in her left lung, left kidney, liver, and the base of her spine.

Ana underwent surgery to remove one of the tumors from her brain. The surgery went well, but a few days later she had a stroke. Victor says every day he prayed for a neutral day, a day in which he wouldn’t receive more bad news. A doctor suggested the couple consider treating Ana for pain only; he didn’t think she could survive. Another doctor gave Ana a 3% chance to make it through the year. Victor decided to focus all his energy on that 3%.

Ana began 3 types of cancer treatment simultaneously. They included chemotherapy administered through the blood stream, as well as chemotherapy into the fluid around her brain and spinal cord. She also had radiation to the brain. Patients don’t usually receive all these treatments at the same time, but Ana didn’t have time for separate treatments because the cancer was attacking her in so many places at once.

During the next 8 months, Ana, who is 5-foot-7, dropped to a weight of 74 pounds. She was completely bedridden and seldom alert. Victor divided his time between the hospital and home. Friends and relatives helped out with the children.

Even though Ana’s outcome was uncertain, Victor remained positive. He says he promised himself that no matter what happened, he’d be able to one day tell his children that he did everything he could for their mother.

“No matter how painful it would be to lose Ana, I can honestly say I did everything I could,” he said.

Gradually, Ana became more alert. She put on weight. By June 2009, she was able to stand. By August, she was officially in remission, which means her cancer had shrunk in response to the treatment and was under control, but she still needed to be tested periodically in case it returned.

An inspiration

Ana says faith is very important, whatever you believe in. “I consider myself a miracle. God gave me a chance for a reason and that’s trying to give hope to others and that’s what I try to do.”

While she was recovering she began receiving cards, letters and emails of support from friends and friends of friends all over the world. She and Victor encouraged visitors, and people began stopping by the hospital to say hello, pray, and give her small gifts – everything from a tin of cookies to sand from a holy site in Israel. The Gospodinoffs spoke at an annual meeting of the American Cancer Society’s Florida division and gave an interview to a local TV station. They created their own Web site to help keep supporters informed of Ana’s progress and to provide inspiration and hope to other people facing cancer.

Ana and Victor have also remained active in the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay For Life event. They began volunteering in 2004 after Victor’s father recovered from cancer. Now his mother is also a survivor.

Many people facing a cancer diagnosis or a treatment decision have turned to the Gospodinoffs for inspiration, help and support.

“My wife and I always say ‘yes,’ says Victor. “You call us; we always say ‘yes.’

“When you see somebody’s eyes and you can see they’re hopeless and they’re down, you speak with them for a while and you can see the charm in their eyes come back. You feel that you’ve helped them find hope that you’re willing to fight.”

Embracing uncertainty

"When we embrace uncertainty, it can be very liberating. If you can accept the uncertainty, it allows you to live life every day."

Victor Gospodinoff

In the summer of 2011, Ana underwent additional surgery when neurosurgeons removed 2 inches of brain tissue from her front temple lobe. The surgery resulted from Ana’s regular MRI. The scan found something suspicious and she had to decide whether to have the surgery, or watch and wait. She decided to have the surgery, and a biopsy later confirmed a small tumor.

Today Ana amazes doctors, nurses, family and friends with her recovery. She has some balance and coordination issues, but she can walk. Her mind is sharp, and she can carry on a normal conversation. She is blind in one eye, but she’s alive.

Victor says, “When we embrace uncertainty, it can be very liberating. If you can accept the uncertainty, it allows you to live life every day. Just because Ana has cancer doesn’t mean she’s going to die from it. When you really accept it full spectrum it makes life a lot easier. Cancer is just one additional factor in the whole equation. It’s just a challenge.”

“We try to inspire hope in other people,” says Ana. “You can’t make somebody want to fight. I can tell them my story and tell them I was dead; yet I’m standing here.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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