Mia Guillen advanced to the UIL Cross Country Regional Meet as a freshman, thoughts of qualifying there four straight times — and advancing to the state meet on multiple occasions in the future — swirled in her mind.
The Edinburg High runner, however, didn’t qualify for regionals her sophomore year. She didn’t even run in the district meet, either. In fact, she didn’t participate in any meets.
Cancer will do that to a person.
While all the focus today is on the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer remains prominent in numbers, non-discriminant, lethal and unforgiving at any age. Guillen’s story, however, is one of strength and one of winning the race of life. Tuesday, the now-junior will once again run in the regional meet after finishing third at the District 31-6A meet Oct. 10 at Ebony Golf Course in Edinburg.
Guillen finished third with a season-best time at the recent district meet. The top two teams and top 10 individual runners will compete at 8 a.m. Tuesday in the UIL Region IV-6A at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The boys meet will begin at 8:30 a.m. Today, the Class 5A boys and girls will take to the course.
“I feel way better now,” Guillen said. “It had been hard to do the stuff I could do before. I feel like I could climb Mount Everest now.”
It’s a feeling that had disappeared from the petite 16-year-old, replaced with the fear of what the future could bring ever since her diagnosis of having Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the most advanced form at that stage.
At the time of Guillen’s diagnosis, Erin Sutton coached the Edinburg High girls’ cross-country and track teams. She remembered seeing the standout freshman, who first impressed her as an eighth grader, not quite acting like herself during Guillen’s freshman track season.
“I started noticing that she wasn’t having as great of a track season as cross country,” Sutton said. “She started having random fevers and rashes, she broke out and doctors thought it was an allergic reaction. It wasn’t a great season, but she still advanced to the area round.
“In that summer before her sophomore year, she was there with us every day until about three weeks before the diagnosis. She was sluggish and tired a lot, but still kicking butt.”
It was a year earlier when Guillen first felt something might be wrong.
“I felt a little bump in the back of my neck, but doctors said it was probably allergies,” Guillen said. “The following year I started having symptoms. I went to get it checked out and thought I was just going for a regular appointment where I’d get some medication.”
Unfortunately, that’s not how the story unfolded. She was told that what she was dealing with “could be serious and needs to get checked out,” she said. “My mom took me to the hospital and I was rushed in for a biopsy.
“It was so scary, I had never gone through a surgery and I was crying at that point. It was shocking and very scary. It’s weird but the first thing I thought of was, ‘How am I going to keep caught up in my college classes.”
Chemotherapy followed, six treatments that took nearly two weeks per treatment to complete, counting the six-hour drive back and forth to Houston. She overcame an allergic reaction to one of her medications during her first treatment.
She remembers a frightening scene where her whole body was itching and she couldn’t breathe for “a good solid minute,” she said. “Then they switched medications.” She said she still has some visible dark spots on her body where she couldn’t stop itching, a visual reminder of her fight.
Her hair fell out after the first treatment. Overcoming that was a battle by itself.
“Losing my hair was really hard. A lot of people express themselves with their hair and I really broke down after that happened,” Guillen said. “But I never wanted to show anyone my feelings. It was already hard enough for me, for my family and for my team.”
With concerns for her family and loved ones, additional worries about school and athletics, her team and friends, the nights were especially difficult.
“The nights, they were hard and my mind was wandering many times. I would be there crying,” she said. “But as the rounds continued that stopped happening and I would try to feel better and be more motivated.”
Her sophomore year was spent between the hospital and home. She worked to remain on top of her school, slept a lot due to the effects of the chemo, and watched Netflix — a lot of Netflix.
“There were times when I would watch 10 different series – and they were long series,” she said.
Sutton offered to help home-school Guillen and arrived four days a week to help with homework, assignments and other questions the girl might have.
“I re-learned chemistry during that time,” said Sutton, who was also an English teacher. “Sometimes it would take longer to help with homework, like two hours sometimes for math. You could tell the days when she couldn’t do as much as others depending on the treatment. But every day would start with, ‘How are the girls? What’s your predictions?
“At first, she didn’t think she would ever run again but I would tell her now isn’t the time to take that off the table. Even after she was cleared and started training she didn’t know if she could do it again, it changed her completely.”
She was told after her third treatment that the cancer was gone, but she still needed to complete the remaining treatments. She had her final treatment Oct. 22, 2019, just more than a year ago. In January she was back running with her Bobcats track team, preparing for the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
Getting on the track was another major feat, and victory, for Guillen.
“Her first track meet back I had placed her on the JV team and she ran like a 6:40 mile,” Ramirez said. “To have a kid going from a blood transfusion to that type of time was unbelievable. She was upset with her time but I told her this is something to celebrate.”
There’s a special bond created between teammates. There was little doubt that it was shared among the Bobcats’ cross country runners. Her teammates would visit her, text her and even decorated her hospital room.
“I was unmotivated at first. It didn’t feel good to not be very conditioned,” Guillen said. “I kept practicing and the girls were so great. They kept pushing me and that made me push myself and wanted to do better.”
This year, facing a pandemic and an extremely short cross country season, Guillen or her current coach Alicia Ramirez didn’t know what to expect.
“She’s a happy girl who’s always out there joking and randomly dancing, making others laugh,” Ramirez said. “Athletes, people, like being around her. She’s a fun kid but is totally serious when it’s time for a workout or to compete. She is serious then and gets it done.
“I didn’t know what to expect from her and her times were not good, 10-minute miles. I told her to listen to her body. What she has been through is so hard but she just gets better and better. She just needs more time.”
As the regionals approach, Guillen and Ramirez are setting the goal to run a time of less than 20 minutes. At the pace she has been going, it’s without question within reach. She clocked in at 22 minutes, 45 second at her first meet this year, followed it with a 21:04 and then a 20:37 to advance to Tuesday’s regional meet, a one-time improbable journey for her.
“Nobody was expecting Mia to do what she did this year,” Ramirez said. “But then she placed in the top 10 in all three meets culminating with a third in district. She’s trying to get her feet wet again and she can do more. She’s already been through cancer and now a pandemic. We expect 19 at regionals and as a senior expecting her to let it go all out.
“She looked small. Now she’s coming out of her shell again. She’s getting to where she wants to, athletically and in spirit. She’s seeing she didn’t lose what she had, it was just delayed a little bit.”
Now she’s back on the path, with her education and her athletics. She hopes to continue running in college.
“Physically I’m feeling good, stronger than I was even before chemo,” Guillen said. “Mentally when I look back, I was mentally drained. Now I’m going to work and get better and keep improving.
“I’m cancer free and it feels good. Sometimes there are days when I forget I even had cancer.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct how Guillen placed at meets and to edit quotes for clarity.