Survivor story: Maria Souto of South Nyack

Peter D. Kramer wrote this profile of South Nyack survivor Maria Souto for the Sunday Life section on Oct. 23, 2011:

Maria Souto knew better.

The daughter of nurses, Souto knew what to look for — and feel for — when it came to breast self-exams. “I had medical training, so I did my own exams and I felt something, but I ignored it for a month or two,” says Souto.

That was 13 years ago and she was living in Germantown, Md. She is now coordinator of communicable disease for Rockland County’s Department of Health and lives in South Nyack.

Maria Souto, who survived breast cancer, at her South Nyack home. (Xavier Mascareñas/The Journal News)

“I thought it might be a cyst or related to my period,” Souto says. “I had ignored it, thinking ‘It’s going to go away.’ But then I realized it wasn’t going away and I woke up one day and I had a black-and-blue mark. People usually say you have no symptoms, but I guess it was an opening for me to go see the doctor.”

Souto’s surgeon should have known better.

When a mammogram showed something, a biopsy was ordered, but it came back negative. “I think the first surgeon I used just didn’t go in properly,” Souto says. “He went in a different way and never reached the cancerous cells.”

It was February 1998.

Cleared by the biopsy, she went on with her life, working at Georgetown University Hospital.

Months later, bruising again, Souto had another mammogram, another biopsy, a different surgeon. “One of the doctors I worked with was my primary care, so my stuff would come through there and the girls would let me look and make sure everything was fine,” she says. “One day, one of the nurses said ‘Maria, your pathology report is back.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ And I looked at it and I cursed out loud. And the nurse said, ‘What?’ And I said ‘I have breast cancer.'”

It was May 1998. Souto had just turned 40. She had stage 2 breast cancer, with one lymph node — the one closest to the breast — positive for cancer.

She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.

Now, Souto has a peace about her, as if being in her presence might possibly lower your blood pressure. She speaks softly, deliberately. Here are 10 things Maria Souto took away from her fight with breast cancer.

1. Parts of her treatment were devastating. “You lose everything — hair, eyebrows, eyelashes. There’s no dignity in any of it,” she says.

At one point, her hair hurt when she lay her head on a pillow. So she had a friend buzz-cut her hair and her brother-in-law shaved her head. Taking control in that way — of a situation over which she had so little control — raised her spirits.

2. The hardest part was that for those six to nine months, her life centered around cancer. “Everything I did depended on my outcome from that last treatment or how I felt after the treatment or where my numbers were,” she says.

3. Family is invaluable: Her two sisters and her parents took turns visiting Souto during chemotherapy. Her parents lived in The Bronx, where Souto was raised. “I’m single and I was living alone. But they came every three weeks. I couldn’t have all of them at the same time, because they would drive me nuts,” she says, breaking out in a laugh.

4.She considers herself fortunate: “I guess I was luckier than most women because I was getting signs that something was happening. Most women don’t know. So getting tested is important.”

5. She remains level-headed: “I don’t get angry at people. I take them for who they are. If somebody is that negative or that angry, that’s their problem, not mine.”

6.Cancer has changed her outlook: “When you’re young, you’re immortal. Nothing scares you. You do stupid things. I knew that after my cancer, whatever I did from that point on was something I had to cherish and be happy with and enjoy.”

7.During her treatment, she prayed “God, don’t let anyone in my family get this.”

“Then my mom got uterine cancer,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “It was very sad. I wanted to give her my strength, but I couldn’t. She was a strong woman, but it was a different disease. I knew the chemo was really going to do a number on her body.”

Ana Souto, who lived her last months in Maria’s South Nyack home, died Sept. 8.

8.She tries to be at peace. “I meditate or listen to certain types of music. I love the monks singing Gregorian chants. I love the harmony and the cadence. I did yoga for awhile, which I have to go back to. Now that my mom’s no longer with me, I can go back to that. It’s hard to take care of someone. But I do whatever’s peaceful to me.”

9.She did the Susan Komen three-day walk with a girlfriend in Miami. “For three days, you walk 20 miles a day. I thought I was going to die,” she says, adding jokingly “at least with chemo, I got to rest.”

10.Her battle with breast cancer, and something she saw at the three-day, has convinced her to be tested for the BRCA gene, to see if she was at higher risk for developing breast cancer. “There were three sisters there and and all of them had the gene,” Souto says. “And they were going to make the decision, at some point in their lives, to have total mastectomies. I have a niece, so I want to make sure that we haven’t given her that gene from our side of the family.”

Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson is the food editor of The Journal News and LoHud.com, for which she's won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.