Sticking together is key for family's cancer journey
February 8, 2024
With the early morning sun peeking over the horizon and the scent of freshly brewed coffee permeating their kitchen, the Durazo family is sharing memories. At times, their voices are husky with emotion, while other times, they openly laugh as they talk about the Monday following Mother’s Day in 2021.
The family’s patriarch, Guillermo Durazo, Jr. — Willie to his friends and family — woke up at 4 a.m. with chest pains. The 72-year-old veteran and retired entrepreneur had bouts of diverticulitis; he associated the pain with the condition and went to the emergency room for treatment.
Little did Willie Durazo, Jr. know that his quick action not only saved his life but would take him and his family on an eight-month journey through cancer.
After discovering that his chest pain was not associated with his intestine, Willie Durazo, Jr. and his family found their way to the Mays Cancer Center, home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center and under the care of oncologist, A. Enrique Diaz, MD, MSc.
The official diagnosis was stage 4 diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL). The cancer had spread to his abdomen, pelvis, lungs, renal glands and lymph nodes.
Had he not sought treatment, he would have had weeks to live, the family was told.
“The first day was the hardest. I thought about four of my friends who died from cancer,” Willie Durazo, Jr. said. “It got to me, and I wanted to get emotional, but I told myself it’s not the time. When it’s all over, I could get emotional. I was sick, but I’m going to get better. I thought I’ve had much worse than this. With that in mind, it was just day after day.”
Willie Durazo, Jr. said choosing a positive attitude and fighting to live was a conscious choice.
“If you get negative, the only thing that’s going to happen is you will go downhill. If I had a negative attitude, I could see myself not eating or not doing what the doctor recommended,” he said.
DLBCL is the most common non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma, according to the American Cancer Society. Diaz said seeing Willie Durazo, Jr. at an advanced stage (stage 3 or 4) is typical for patients with this type of cancer.
“It was highly aggressive. It is aggressive by nature, but sometimes you see the aggressiveness to be really, really high, and that was his case,” Diaz said.
Willie Durazo, Jr. began treatments immediately after his diagnosis with his family at his side including, his wife of 50 years.
It is often said that laughter is the best medicine, and Willie Durazo, Jr., has had it in abundance from his life partner. His stoic, quiet strength, is the opposite of his wife’s demeanor.
Quick-witted with an infectious smile, Joy Durazo is the embodiment of her first name. Together, the couple has navigated several career changes, business ownership, and a move from their native California to San Antonio to retire. Two of their three children, Willie Durazo, III, and youngest daughter, Natasha Durazo, joined them.
Through their darkest days, the couple continued their family tradition of using laughter to navigate through four months of chemotherapy, four spinal taps and 17 radiation treatments.
“For 50 years, she’s been telling me jokes.” Willie Durazo, Jr. said. “So that helped.”
United in their effort to mimic Willie Durazo, Jr.’s determination to stay positive, the family made two rules: never cry in front of him and stick together.
Every family member attended each doctor’s appointment and treatment. When one couldn’t attend in person, they joined through video calls. And when it was time for Willie Durazo, Jr.’s thinning hair to be shaved, his son took over rather than taking his father to a barber.
“It was my way of letting him know he is not alone,” Willie Durazo, III said. “He’s not going to be alone through any part of this.”
Diaz said seeing family members at appointments is typical, especially in the Hispanic community. But he said family support is critical for patients for two reasons. Diaz said family members need to be aware of treatment side effects and how they can help their loved one manage them.
“The second reason is before we start treatment. The family and the patient need to know about the type of disease diagnosed, the stage of the disease, the prognosis, and the ultimate goal that justifies the type of treatment that we recommend,” Diaz said.
He said that throughout the months of treatment, patients and family members meet repeatedly to talk about the patient’s progress and prognosis.
“Those are the two main reasons why the family presence is so important,” he said.
Rounding out the four Durazo family members is Alejandro Peralez, Natasha Durazo’s fiancé. Three months after they began dating, Peralez sat next to Willie Durazo, Jr. as he heard his diagnosis for the first time.
“I was drawn to them to help,” Peralez said. “I felt out of place because I was hearing this very important news before anyone else did, but I was weirdly calm and focused on how Willie was feeling.”
Throughout the eight months of treatments, the family strove to keep a sense of normalcy by sticking to the daily routines of life pre-diagnosis and cranking up the karaoke machine. Joy Durazo belted out her signature song, “I Will Survive,” while Willie Durazo, Jr. stuck to the classic “Mack the Knife”.
But maintaining any sense of normal was difficult. Each family member took time to cry privately and rage against Willie Durazo, Jr.’s mood changes as a result of steroids used during his treatments. Natasha Durazo said she would take her mother to dinner to give her a break from the stress of caretaking.
“I would tell her you can’t cry, Mom. So when she would see him, she would walk out the room, be angry and cry and then come back,” she said.
To mark the end of his chemo-immunotherapy and radiation treatments, on Sept. 23, 2021, and on Feb. 4, 2022, Willie Durazo, Jr. rang a bell at Mays Cancer Center, a tradition for cancer patients. The milestones pushed forward two significant events. Natasha Durazo decided to pursue her dream of being a nurse and was accepted to nursing school, and in July 2023, she and Peralez became engaged.
In 2022, Willie Durazo, Jr. was declared in complete remission and remains cancer-free to this date.
“It’s a gift because now my dad can walk me down the aisle,” she said.