CS Magazine
Cedars-Sinai Magazine

The Gift of Ordinary Life During Cancer

Minerva Quezada with her family

Photos by Diana Feil

Minerva Quezada’s doctor calls her a “trailblazer” in her fight against skin cancer. For her, it’s all about being there for her family.

Every Sunday morning, Minerva Quezada makes a giant breakfast for her family: pancakes, hash browns, eggs, toast—the works. 

“The more food the better,” she says. “The kids love a big breakfast.” 

One of Quezada’s greatest joys in a life filled with tough days is watching her children, Ava, 15, and David, 10, as well as her husband, Frank, enjoy the feast she’s prepared, with David acting as sous-chef (he likes to stir the pancake mix).

Quezada immerses herself in the busyness of family life. She’s up early to make breakfast, pack lunches, and get Ava and David off to school. Twice a week, she helps out in her son’s classroom. Both children compete in team sports like softball and basketball year-round, and their mom is nearly always there to cheer them on. If she’s not in the stands, it’s usually because she is at a medical appointment that can’t be missed.

For the past 10 years, Quezada has faced down cancer. She has a two-page list of all the surgeries and medications that have kept her going. Time after time, she has recovered and resumed her busy life—often with remarkable speed and tenacity. Still, on some days the effects of treatment overwhelm her powerful drive to maintain normalcy. 

Those down days make family rituals like a huge Sunday breakfast even more precious. Quezada has come to see ordinary life as an extraordinary gift.

Strong and Resilient

Minerva Quezada cooking with her children

Quezada has a warm smile and serene presence, despite the inner battle she’s waging to keep her spirits up through one health challenge after another. She grew up speaking both Spanish and English in a quiet suburban neighborhood in La Habra, the northern Orange County city where she still lives. Her parents left Chihuahua, Mexico, and settled here in the early 1970s when she was 3 years old. 

Her resilience doesn’t surprise her husband. “She believes in herself,” he says. “She was as low as you can get in the first six months after her diagnosis. She had to dig deep, but she bounced back strong.”

Their big extended family is a source of strength that never wanes. Frank grew up in La Habra, too, and their large families get together once a month. The traditional dishes Quezada prepares—including Mexican barbacoa (barbecue), menudo (soup) and tamales—are the stars at these gatherings. She savors the good times because she’ll never forget what it felt like to learn she was facing the deadliest of skin cancers.

She was five months pregnant with David when she was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” she says. “Then it began to sink in. I thought, ‘OK, this is real.’ Luckily, I was referred to a great team at The Angeles Clinic. They gave us hope when we really needed it.”

Over the past decade, Omid Hamid, MD, director of the Melanoma Program at Cedars-Sinai, has guided her through multiple surgeries and treatments. As chief of Translational Research and Immunotherapy at The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute, a Cedars-Sinai affiliate, Hamid pursues pioneering research on how to boost the immune response to advanced melanoma and other cancers (see below). He has enrolled Quezada in a number of clinical trials that have given her access to promising new immunotherapy drugs.

Moving the Dial on Cancer Survival

The idea of empowering the immune ­system to fight cancer was “on the fringe” when Omid Hamid, MD, director of the Melanoma Program at Cedars-Sinai, began a career dedicated to improving the odds of surviving melanoma. 

He has played a leading role in the immuno-oncology revolution that, in recent years, has given new hope to cancer patients. 

Along with Mark B. Faries, MD, Hamid is co-director of the Melanoma Center at The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute, a Cedars-Sinai affiliate, which is recognized internationally for advancing treatment for all stages of melanoma.

The team’s immunotherapy breakthroughs in ­melanoma treatment are also improving survival rates and quality of life for patients with lung, ­kidney, bladder, breast, ovarian, gastrointestinal, head and neck cancers, and more.

“Through clinical trials, we’re able to offer an array of novel therapy options for patients who don’t respond to traditional therapy. And we have a large group of patients who are doing really well,” Hamid says.

Read more about the expanding power of immune therapy at ceda.rs/power-immune-therapy

Before Quezada began treatment, in 2009, she gave birth to a beautiful boy. David was delivered two months early, but after nearly two weeks in the NICU, he began to thrive. 

A month after giving birth, Quezada returned to the hospital for her first round of chemotherapy. It was grueling. She remembers a night when she had chills and a high fever. At one point, she was covered with 14 blankets and was still shivering. But she responded well to the treatment, and she and Frank realized they needed to stop looking at grim statistics and stay positive.

They gently told well-meaning friends not to show up if they were going to cry. “We decided to see what we could make happen each day going forward,” her husband says. 

The next big step for Quezada was enrolling in her first immunotherapy clinical trial with Hamid, which launched her on a treatment path that has kept the disease at bay.

A Trailblazing Patient

Minerva Quezada eating with her family

The commute to Hamid’s office in West Los Angeles can take as long as two hours each way. Quezada considers this time well spent.

“I’m getting the latest, greatest, most innovative treatment. I count on it,” she says. 

Hamid and Quezada have formed a close bond over the years. Hamid’s daughter was born about the same time as Quezada’s son, so they always catch up on family news during her checkups. She and her husband are both grateful for the sensitivity and determination Hamid brings to her care. “Once when I came in fatigued and I’d lost weight, Dr. Hamid could see Frank was really worried and he told him, ‘Let’s see what’s going on and get her back in shape.’ He helps us both stay positive,” Quezada says.

Hamid is equally impressed with Quezada. “She’s a trailblazer. She is such a fighter,” he says. “It’s always uplifting for me to see her.”

One of her lowest points was learning the cancer had spread to her brain. “I broke down in Dr. Hamid’s office. It spiraled me back to the way I felt when I was first told I had cancer,” she recalls. 

Hamid reassured her. She remembers him saying, “We’re going to work through this together.” And they did. She had brain surgery twice to remove tumors. Each time, she recovered the strength she would need to get back to enjoying life with her family.

“No one would ever know what she is going through unless she told them,” Frank says. 

But Quezada would rather talk about other things. Through all of the treatments and emotional ups and downs over the years, she has never let cancer define her life. 

“I don’t think about it unless I have to. I don’t give it that energy,” she says. Instead, she keeps herself busy with her children. And she keeps them active so they don’t focus on her medical condition—and because, she says, “If I don’t, God knows what trouble they’ll get into. I do what I have to do to stay well, and then focus on being a mom and wife.”

Cancer Care Close to Home

With Cedars-Sinai’s recent expansion to 1919 Santa Monica Blvd. and expanding services at 11800 Wilshire Blvd., more people in the area now have access to the most advanced treatments for many types of cancer.

“We’ve designed a sophisticated space and inviting atmosphere where patients can receive world-class care, but still feel at ease being near home,” says Lawrence Piro, MD, CEO of The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute, a Cedars-Sinai affiliate whose leading experts provide personalized cancer care in multiple specialties—including breast, lung, urology, gastroenterology and melanoma.

Expansion of services also includes Cedars-Sinai’s first primary care practice in Santa Monica as well as specialty practices, on-site lab and X-ray services.