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NBC's Miguel Almaguer on his mother's lung cancer: She never smoked

When my mother was diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer, my family was confused.
"I was terrified. And, God, if I was scared, how must she feel?" NBC News correspondent Miguel Almaguer writes of his mother's lung cancer diagnosis.
"I was terrified. And, God, if I was scared, how must she feel?" NBC News correspondent Miguel Almaguer writes of his mother's lung cancer diagnosis.Courtesey of Miguel Almaguer

I was angry.

That was my initial reaction, followed quickly by fear.

While on assignment covering a large flash flood in Colorado, another was unfolding in my personal life. I got the phone call from my mom, who right away told me “not to worry.”

It’s the obligatory thing to say to those you love. But that’s exactly what I did. I'm a worrier, especially when it comes to family.

I was angry because I was the last to know about my mother's cancer diagnosis. The rest of my family kept it a secret because they knew I was up to my knees, literally, in work while covering a massive flood.

I was terrified. And, God, if I was scared, how must she feel?

This was the start of a roller coaster of emotions that would paralyze me some days and bring me to tears on others. I’d cry in my hotel room, in the office and every time I got off the phone with anyone in my family. Mom, of course, had it the worst. She had to be scared. And she had to put on a brave face even as the news got worse.

She was first diagnosed in 2013 with stage 2 lung cancer at age 65. My father, brother and I were so confused by the diagnosis. My mom, Clementina, is literally the healthiest person I know. Her diet is incredible. She eats veggies because she likes them. She doesn't drink. She exercises every day and wrestles with my nephews until they give up. She has never smoked.

Miguel and his mother, Clementina, in Berkeley, California, about 1980.
Miguel and his mother, Clementina, in Berkeley, California, about 1980.Courtesey of Miguel Almaguer

Doctors said it was likely a gene mutation, but nothing helped us really understand why this was happening to her. In fact, there are different types of lung cancer, and some people who get the disease have no known risk factors, according to the American Cancer Society.

Initially, they said she would need surgery, then she'd be OK.

But immediately after surgery, while still waiting in the post-op room, I got the bad news. Doctors had taken out a lobe in her lung, but found the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and possibly the rest of her body.

She was now stage 3 lung cancer.

She would soon need chemotherapy and radiation. I vividly remember asking her doctor if my mom would be OK. Lung cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer, and the doctor warned there was reason to be concerned. I asked if my mother would die from other causes connected to the disease or if she would live long enough to beat it.

He said cancer would be the reason.

Standing in in the hallway outside her room, I cried. Just broke down like never before. It felt like there was nothing anyone could do and I would lose her.

It was just a few hours after surgery, and my mom was still heavily medicated. I never told her about the conversation. I couldn't.

In the months that followed, I flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco's Bay Area every weekend. My brother took care of her Monday through Thursday, and I spent Friday through Sunday nights with her. I felt guilty not living in the same city. I felt like she was slipping away, and there was nothing worse than that. She was so weak, so skinny. The woman who always exercised could barely walk.

Chemotherapy was brutal. We had to force her to take walks around the block. She clung to my arm, barely able to make it a few houses down the street.

She threw up often, barely ate and was always exhausted. I cleaned her house every weekend while she slept. Mom always kept a tidy house so it was a reminder of normalcy.

Weeks turned to months, and when chemo ended, she started radiation. Every few months, she had a scan to see if the cancer had returned. Waiting for the results was awful and terrifying. The doctor said there were chances it would return and she'd have to go through the entire process again.

But it never did.

For five years, those scans were routine, until doctors said she beat the odds. Of course Mom did. She is a fighter.

When we cried together earlier in her diagnosis, she wept over the fear of never having seen me get married or have kids. I told her I wasn't in a rush and she'd have to stick around if she wanted to see that.

Well, she has stuck around. Now that she's in remission, I guess I should work on that.

But for now, I'm just enjoying having our normal lives back and loving every minute I get with my mom.