Helen Garcia’s Positive Fight Against Cancer: ‘This Was Something That Was Meant For Me’

A spaghetti feed and and silent auction for Helen Garcia is set for Saturday, Sept. 8, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Southgate Casino Bar & Grill, 2525 S. Washington St., Grand Forks. A free-will offering at this public event is suggested. NDAD is a benefit sponsor. Read more about NDAD Community Fundraisers at the bottom of this page.


By Mike Brue

It’s not unusual some days at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in East Grand Forks, Minn., to find Helen Garcia, praying to the Father and talking to her dad.

Helen Garcia, 50, is undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

Felipe Martinez Sr. — her dad — was a native Texan and longtime Grafton, N.D., area resident and farm laborer who long worked on migrant health issues. He also favored three decades of Grafton-area airwaves with Spanish-language music as a weekend disc jockey on KXPO radio.

Martinez died in 2010.

“Usually when I say my prayers to God,” Garcia said, “I also ask my dad things.”

On one particular Sunday in March, she had plenty to share with both.

Garcia, 50, said her prayers. In silent conversation, the Grafton-area native and East Grand Forks resident — the 10th of Felipe and Amelia Martinez’s 13 children — also told her late father about the biopsy at Altru Main Clinic in Grand Forks. It followed, by several days, her discovery of a “pretty hard” lump during a self-examination of her left breast.

“I told him about what I found, and that no matter what would happen, I would promise to be positive, that I would fight and do what I had to do,” Helen recalled. “This was something that was meant for me and that I was going to handle it the way he would want me to do.”

The news

The next morning, Garcia got the news on the phone while working in Grand Forks at LM Wind Power, her employer of about five years.

The lump was malignant, Helen learned. She had breast cancer.

In that life-altering moment, she recalls, tears briefly streamed down her cheeks.

Then she wiped the tears aside.

Helen was released from work for the remainder of the day to return to Altru, learn more about the biopsy results and discuss a possible course of action. Afterward, Garcia gathered with family members at a local café to explain her news and attempt to help them grasp her new reality – one that will be faced by an estimated 226,800 women in the United States this year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Helen’s news was shocking, said Pablo Garcia, 28, one of her six adult children. “I really didn’t know what to say.”

“I cried,” recalled another son, Abraham, 22. “I was much more emotional than she was.”

Pablo (upper left) and Abraham Garcia, two of Juan and Helen Garcia’s six adult offspring, pose with their parents and the family’s two pugs, Milhous (with Juan) and Daisy, at the Garcias’ East Grand Forks, Minn., home. Absent are Garcia sons Juan II, Adan and Noah and daughters Michelle Smith and Alicia Garcia.

That is Helen Garcia’s way, confirms Jodi Bernu, one of her work leads at LM Wind Power. Bernu is Helen’s friend and the chairperson for Saturday’s fundraiser on Garcia’s behalf.

Helen is “always ready with a laugh, always ready with a hug,” Bernu said. “She can make anybody smile. She’s just a fun, caring person. And even after she got cancer, she’s always there to give anybody words of encouragement.”

Abraham Garcia added, “I have never seen her cry or get upset about anything” involving her battle with breast cancer.

According to Abraham and Pablo Garcia and their father, Juan DeDios Garcia Sr., 57, Helen faces her struggles matter-of-factly, without complaining.

Not entirely true, Helen confessed. She recalled venting one day while feeling both too sick and too confined at home. “I’m tired of being in here!” she exclaimed in frustration.

When pressed, Garcia concedes that sometimes she’s been very nauseous and that her bones hurt.

On this day? “I’m feeling OK,” she said with a mild smile. “I’m just wanting to get it done with.”

“It” is a lumpectomy.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America – her choice for treatment – has scheduled outpatient surgery at Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, Ill., Friday to remove what remains – after chemotherapy — of the tumor, plus surrounding tissue. She and her daughter, Michelle Garcia Smith, 31, flew Wednesday to the Windy City, where Helen has flown for treatments every three weeks since spring.

‘A new beginning’

Juan DeDios Garcia and his wife, Helen, in January 2011. (Submitted photo)

As Helen talked, Juan glanced over at his wife of 33 years, a grandmother of two, sitting beside him on their living room couch. He revealed a hint of a smile. Helen Garcia’s long dark locks of hair are missing; not too many months ago, that hair flowed over her neck and down her upper back. She lacks the cap she sometimes wears in public. Thanks to her cancer treatments, her head is bald. A closer look reveals barely visible, peach-fuzz-like strands.

Earrings complement Helen Garcia’s easy smile.

“When it comes back, it will be real nice. A new beginning,” she had said earlier in the week about her hair. A thought brought a chuckle from her. “Actually, I don’t mind the fact that it doesn’t take me so long to get ready in the morning.”

She hasn’t had to get up for work since June, using family medical leave and short-term disability insurance to focus on her cancer battle and physical roller-coaster ride that accompanies chemotherapy.

Helen Garcia says she made a vow to be positive in her battle with breast cancer. “This was something that was meant for me,” she said.

“I’ve had some bad days,” she offered, reluctantly. “Some really bad days.” Yet, she insists the biggest impact on her life has been financial.

Garcia hopes to return to work in late September or early October. Despite cutting back on expenses and continuing to comb for more budget-trimming possibilities, she said, the Garcias are behind on the mortgage and some other household bills.

It can be a struggle when both husband and wife are sick.

Juan’s health

Juan DeDios Garcia, a Texan born and raised, started traveling to northeast North Dakota in the early 1970s to work in the potato fields. “It was kind of an adventure,” he recalled.

He first saw young Helen Martinez working in Zarape Curb, a Mexican-American restaurant on Grafton’s north side that was owned and operated by her parents.

But it would be the late ‘70s before Helen and Juan became a couple.

“I thought he was cute,” Helen recalled.

“I thought she had money,” he said, failing to keep a straight face. Helen smiled and rolled her eyes.

They married on Aug. 25, 1979, before a Walsh County judge.

In January 1989, the growing young family moved to Texas. Work was hard to find, though, and they stayed only for several months before returning to the Red River Valley of the North. They took some friends’ suggestion to settle in East Grand Forks. It’s been their home ever since.

Some of the Garcias’ struggles have paralleled those of their East Grand Forks neighbors. For example, along with many other community residents, the Garcia family lost possessions in the disastrous Flood of ’97. They lived in rental housing at the time.

Ultimately, the trials of recovery gave way to personal triumph: Juan and Helen moved into their first home, on the community’s north end, on Dec. 13, 1998.

In 2005, Juan Garcia learned his kidneys were failing.

He received dialysis multiple times a week, first at Altru, then at home. His employer, Simplot, “was really, really good” to help accommodate it, he recalled, appreciatively. “That was helpful.”

Juan finally received a donor kidney, on Dec. 28, 2007, during a transplant operation at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, in Minneapolis.

He struggled to recover, though, and had been in the hospital for about three months when Helen, intending to surprise Juan, traveled with family members to the Twin Cities without his knowledge.

When they found Juan in therapy, the sight shocked them.

“We just kind of watched him for a while,” Helen recalled. “If you’d have seen him and seen his face, he would have made you cry. He reminded me of a person who had AIDS. He was so skinny. He walked like an old man.”

Once weighing around 170 pounds, Juan Garcia stood before them at a wobbly 112.

“He was depressed,” Helen recalled. “He wanted to go home.”

Juan DeDios Garcia, 57, was the recipient of a new kidney in a December transplant operation nearly five years ago.

Ultimately, Juan Garcia did return home and also to work at Simplot, but health struggles continue to dog him. After not having worked since early December 2011, he returned for parts of three consecutive days in late May. On that third day, he fell and was sent to the hospital, Helen said.

His woes are compounded by a recent diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. His daily regimen of 15 medications includes prednisone, a drug used to treat inflammatory diseases, but frequently with significant, adverse side effects. His ankles and feet are considerably swollen. His face, too, is more puffy than shown in an early 2011 photo taken of Helen and him; that photo appears on a flier advertising Saturday’s benefit for Helen.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Juan said plainly.

Helen looked at her husband, then back at a house guest. “He’s sick a lot,” she said.

‘I don’t know how many times I felt it’

During Juan’s health struggles, Helen was thankful that her own health was good. A carpal tunnel injury helped push her away from her first career as a hair stylist. She also worked at East Grand Forks Head Start as a bilingual para-professional before settling as a LM Wind Power employee.

Then came the day she discovered the lump.

“At first I thought, ‘What…?’ “ Garcia recalled of the breast self-examination. “I felt it again. I don’t know how many times I felt it.

“I got scared, then I thought, ‘Maybe I should make an appointment.’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should go to the emergency room.’ Then I decided that, no, I’ll make an appointment.”

The flier for the Saturday, Sept. 8, benefit for Helen Garcia. It’s from 4 to 7 p.m. at Southgate Casino Bar & Grill.

Now, nearly a half year into her battle with cancer, she relies on her faith and the support of her family. Still, she’s struggling to come to grips with Saturday’s benefit, which – because of Friday’s surgery in Illinois — she will be unable to attend. “I feel embarrassed,” she said. “I know I shouldn’t. I just have a hard time with it.”

Helen is “extremely modest,” benefit fundraiser chair Bernu said upon hearing the reaction. The Garcias, Bernu said,  “definitely need help.”

‘Why anybody?’

Helen Garcia insists she’s never asked, in prayer or anywhere else, the question “Why me?” about her cancer.

“I just asked, ‘Why anybody?’ “ she said. “I’m not better than anybody else to ask that question. Nobody asks for this. I just have to deal with it.

“The only time I feel so bad is for the kids with cancer. How many kids have this? When I was hurting really bad, I couldn’t imagine how a little kid can handle chemo.”

The Garcias were married in 1979. They marked their 33rd anniverary Aug. 25.

The number of U.S. deaths from breast cancer this year will approach 40,000, according to the National Cancer Institute. Still, Helen Garcia said that “most times I think of myself, I don’t feel like it’s been life threatening, or anywhere close to what my husband has gone through.”

Felipe Martinez’s 10th child paused a few seconds before continuing her thought.

“Maybe,” Helen Garcia said, “I’m just thinking about it in a positive way.”

The writer, Mike Brue, is communications director for NDAD. You can reach him at (701) 795-6605 or mbrue@ndad.org.


About NDAD’s Community Fundraisers program

NDAD-sponsored community fundraisers are conducted by friends and families of a person with a disability or a serious health challenge.

NDAD, a charitable nonprofit organization, acts as custodian of the funds raised, which can be used to help the individual with medical and other urgent needs and expenses, including helping with doctor, clinic or hospital bills and paying pre-existing bills. NDAD allows the client to use the bank of his or her choice to hold all funds that are raised.

The community fundraiser service is offered free of charge by NDAD. All funds raised are spent on the client’s needs – in Helen Garcia’s case, medical bills and essential day-to-day expenses. It’s a service NDAD has provided across North Dakota for the majority of its 37 years. References are available.

The service offers benefits in several ways. NDAD is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, meaning any funds donated to NDAD qualify for a charitable donation and are deductible for donors who itemize. Funds donated to bank accounts that are not under 501(c)(3) status are not deductible funds.

Donations directly to a needy individual also may cause that person to lose eligibility for various public assistance programs that are based on income. With NDAD as fund custodian, the funds should protect eligibility for public programs. NDAD tracks all funds raised and expenses paid. The client, family member or representative can bring in the donation, and NDAD will provide the necessary accounting functions.

Approved bills must be submitted to NDAD, where they will be paid with donated funds — a service that can be of great relief to individuals or families dealing with overwhelming situations. If clients are at medical facilities out of town for long periods of time, it also can be a great convenience.

NDAD’s long reputable service in North Dakota also is a factor sometimes when potential donors consider a fundraiser sponsored by the organization.

Also, NDAD provides marketing and consulting expertise to help with fundraisers, including creation and copying of posters, letters or any other advertising items necessary for fundraisers.

Learn more about NDAD’s Community Fundraisers program by calling (701) 775-5577 or toll free 1 (800) 532-NDAD. Learn about other upcoming fundraisers at http://www.ndad.org/fundraisers.asp .


1 Response

  1. Kristi Kvernen

    Helen is my good friends mother, she is a great hard working person with a good heart. I hope you can all make it to southgate Sat. to help this struggling family out. I know she will weep with joy when she sees how people pull together to help a friend in need!

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