FAIRFIELD — Lifelong Fairfield resident Margarita Lopez, 47, has always been a go-getter. From being a real estate agent entrepreneur, community leader, business owner and mother – it seemed nothing could slow her down.
Valiantly fighting the dreaded disease for the second time in five years, Lopez continues to reach out to others while making the most of any opportunity to cherish being in the present.
Lopez’s start in real estate came when she lived with an older brother who had been buying, building up and selling property for years. Once she was ready to rent an apartment, he had a talk with her.
“He sat me down and said that you don’t want to pay someone else’s mortgage, you want to get your own place if you can,” Lopez said. “I bought my first house when I was 19 years old.”
Lopez eventually became a loan officer at the bank in Fairfield. She later acquired her real estate license and become the manager/owner of an affiliate real estate company in Sacramento. She opened her own real estate office in 1998.
While helping match potential buyers with properties was the primary part of her job, Lopez also wanted to get the word out about how to make the dream of home ownership a reality.
“I would hold monthly homebuyer seminars in Napa and here in Fairfield at title companies. There were times when I would have them weekly because so many people came out,” Lopez said. “I showed them how to establish credit, how to save money and other things. It was very cool to see their eyes light up when they realized that they could do it.”
In 2007, Lopez was named Latina Businessowner of the Year by the Solano Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“It was the first year that Solano had its own Hispanic chamber. The year before that Solano and Napa did it jointly, so when they called and told me they were honoring me, I was pretty blown away,” Lopez said. “You don’t do it to get recognition, you just do it because you like helping people. So to get acknowledged was quite an honor for me.”
In October 2008, Lopez received a positive diagnosis of Stage IIIb (just shy of Stage IV) breast cancer after finding a lump while dressing two months before. The doctor’s voice on the phone was unintelligible to her after he uttered the word “positive.”
“It’s difficult to process,” Lopez said. “If you don’t have anyone who has been diagnosed, then it’s scary. Well, actually it’s scary regardless, when it is brand new in your world. When you hear your diagnosis, it’s probably a good idea to have someone else there to ask questions and ask about treatment options.”
Lopez then went through what, at that time, was the most aggressive chemotherapy regimen available, along with Herceptin antibody treatment. The Herceptin was warranted because the kind of cancer she had contained a protein, HER2 positive, that makes it multiply faster and that is what the Herceptin blocks.
In what has been the take-charge way she has led her life, Lopez educated herself on options and available treatments, and when she disagreed, she spoke out. The surgeon she chose performed a lumpectomy, then she had a second surgery to remove cancer from her lymph nodes and chest wall. After six months of radiation and a year more of other treatments, in 2010 she was clear.
“I had a 60 percent chance of a recurrence within two years and, by April 2012, two years had gone by without a recurrence. I was ecstatic,” Lopez said.
In September 2012, however, Lopez was newly diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer that had spread throughout her lymph nodes from her groin to her neck.
While devastating, as it happened a new drug, Perjeta, designed to help patients with Lopez’s exact diagnosis, was approved in June 2012 after use in the CLEOPATRA (Clinical Evaluation of Pertuzumab and Trastuzumab) study.
“Had I been diagnosed in April, May or June, I wouldn’t be on the treatment I am on now because Perjeta wasn’t approved until June,” Lopez said. “It works with the Herceptin to better block the HER2 receptors and increases your life expectancy by up to 18 months, which is pretty awesome.”
Lopez was aware of the CLEOPATRA study because she didn’t cede her care over to others but has tried to stay on top of it. She urges others to do the same.
“Become an advocate for yourself. Be a part of your own medical team. I’ve met people who experienced unnecessary pain or nausea because they are not their own advocate,” Lopez said.
While doing all she can to battle her cancer, Lopez wastes no time in doing what has come natural to her all her life, helping others. She has helped with the American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation and did TV spots for Spanish network Univision.
In September 2011, Lopez was featured on the cover of Solano County Bilingual magazine La Voz, “The Voice.” The name of the article was “I Survived.” Singer/songwriter Skyler Jett, who has worked with numerous top artists including Celine Dion, had written a song with the same title. So it was natural to use it to raise awareness and provide comfort.
“So we put a group of people together and Sharon Wynn sings the song and people become aware of how music touches the soul,” Lopez said. “It has touched so many people. It’s about bringing that song to the masses.”
Lopez’s contributions to the community have not gone unnoticed. Last week she was awarded the Armando Peraza award at the Voices of Latin Rock fundraiser for autism research in San Francisco. She is also an American Cancer Society Hero of Hope for 2013-14.
Lopez also has kept a blog/vlog (videolog) of her sometimes tumultuous journey, which she posts to Facebook. In past entries, Lopez has been at turns inspirational, bone-weary, hopeful and vigilant. She has talked about the accumulation effect of the treatments, how “chemo brain” is definitely real and has stressed eating right, being physically active and doing normal activities. Above all, she reiterates keeping a positive attitude.
“A friend of mine made a vlog for his family and I thought it was a beautiful thing. It’s, number one, for my kids and, number two, to provide information for someone who is newly diagnosed or knows someone who is so they will know what it is like to go through treatment,” Lopez said. “I try to talk about my own personal journey and also discuss the medications and resources, as well. It is healing to talk about it. Whether or not it actually does, doesn’t matter. When you are coming from that place, it is absolutely healing.”
Despite the battle with the invader in her body, Lopez remains positive. Her sign-off for the online journal of her journey reflects the positivity she has cultivated and tries to share.
With a smile and a point directly at the viewer she says, “Don’t forget . . . you have a lot to be grateful for.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected]
Margarita Lopez’s Blog “My Journey:” http://margaritalopez.me