Child development student finds courage — and community — through cancer journey

Scholarship recipient Mitzi Cazares is back at SDSU with a new perspective and needed support after a long road to remission.

Friday, May 31, 2024
A young woman with short brunette hair, wearing a sleeveless, mid-length floral print dress, is standing outdoors with a white purse hanging from a strap over her left shoulder. In the background is a house, two Adirondack chairs and a lush, tall green bush.
Mitzi Cazares is a recent recipient of support from the Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund.

Some 15 months after receiving the cancer diagnosis that upended her life, Mitzi Cazares finally returned to in-person classes at San Diego State University in January. 

For the child development major, it was an emotional moment. 

It was also a reminder that the ordeal had changed her in many ways.

“I feel like only certain circumstances or experiences in life can give you a different perspective,” said Cazares, a recipient of the Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund, which has helped dozens of SDSU students impacted by cancer stay on track to graduate since it was launched in 2018. 

“I'm more in tune with myself now. I'm more in tune with the students. I have a different level of awareness, patience and love for the people around me.”

That harrowing, perspective-altering experience began in October 2022. 

Cazares, who grew up in San Diego’s Clairemont neighborhood, was working full time as a preschool teacher and taking a full load of classes in her first semester at SDSU after transferring from San Diego Mesa College. 

That’s when Cazares started to notice puffiness around her neck when she woke up in the morning. Because of financial concerns, she held off on seeking treatment. Finally, as her condition worsened, her mother drove her to the hospital.

A CT scan revealed a mass on her throat. Further tests revealed blood clots in her neck and arms. The diagnosis was diffuse large B cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She began chemotherapy and had to withdraw from SDSU.

By January 2023, scans of her neck were still lighting up, and doctors were concerned treatment was not working. That’s when a biopsy revealed something unexpected — thyroid cancer.

“For them it wasn't bad news,” Cazares explains. “At least they knew what was going on.”

For Cazares, it meant surgery on her neck and a course of radiation throughout the summer of 2023 to finish off the cancer. Last fall, she entered remission and re-enrolled at SDSU, starting with a few virtual classes since she was still technically radioactive.

“I did miss a few classes but my professors were extremely understanding,” she said.

Finding support

Fortunately, Cazares had other folks in her corner as well. 

Along the way, she was connected with Tammy Blackburn​​​​ ('94, '01), senior director of marketing and communications in SDSU University Relations and Development. Blackburn, who has publicly spoken out about her own experience living with breast cancer, is co-founder of the Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund.

Through the scholarship, Cazares found not only financial assistance but emotional support and a sense of community with other cancer survivors at the university. She found the latter particularly profound during a recent lunch for scholarship recipients and donors.

“I felt very loved,” she explained, fighting back tears. “I think I was very hard on myself for what I felt. But to see male students, who don’t usually cry, tearing up speaking about their own experiences — it was like, ‘I'm not alone. What I went through and what I felt in the moment was OK.’”

Moving forward

As Cazares looks ahead to her senior year in SDSU's College of Education, the future looks bright. 

She plans to attend graduate school and is pondering careers in school psychology, school counseling or perhaps as a child life specialist — a professional who helps children and families navigate injury, illness or disability. 

“I want to be able to help children at an early age in a school setting or as a psychologist,” she said. “I also want to be a positive representation of minorities for students with similar backgrounds.”

Last semester Cazares found work as an applied behavior analyst where she enjoyed working with children one-on-one in school settings. This summer, she’ll begin volunteering at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego thanks to a connection she made with alumna, cancer survivor and Courage Through Cancer donor Sarita Flaming.

Meanwhile, she’s still processing what she’s gone through. She knows that cancer has fundamentally changed her. 

Thanks to the community of cancer survivors she’s found, she knows that’s OK.

“I met someone who went through cancer at the same time that I did, and I was sharing with them that I felt like I was chasing an older version of myself that is no longer there,” Cazares explains. “That resonated with them and they shared that was a struggle they were experiencing, too.  

“That brings me comfort in knowing that I wasn't being too hard on myself, or it wasn't just me. That's cancer.”

To double your impact, make a donation of any amount to the Courage Through Cancer Fund Endowment and alumnus Mark Mays will match your gift dollar for dollar. For more information, contact Mary Darling: [email protected]

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