MISSION — A MySpace message was the first line in Brenda and Mario Treviño’s love story.
They’d seen each other before in the hallways of Veterans Memorial High School, but they’d never said a word to each other. That was Mario’s fault — he thought she was too pretty for him, and couldn’t quite work up the courage to approach her.
It’s easy to see why he was nervous: Brenda has a bright, dimpled smile, cheery eyes and a warm laugh. She wore her hair long, black tresses falling far down her back.
Mario stands out too. He’s tall and lanky, with a quick wit and a fondness for telling jokes and stories. He’s self-confident, but not arrogant.
Mario wasn’t quite confident enough to talk to Brenda back then, but he did manage to muster up the courage to add her on MySpace. She recognized him from school and sent a message back. The two started dating in the summer of 2008.
“If that would’ve never happened we would’ve never been here,” Mario, 32, said last Wednesday.
“Here” is the couple’s north Mission home and the life they’ve built there. It’s clean and bright with a Christmas tree in a corner of the living room and a big yard out back, the sound of a pet parrot squawking in one of the bedrooms.
There’s the sound of children playing, too — Brenda and Mario have had four in those 12 years since they met online, their latest born just this year.
Mario spent lots of those 12 years working to provide for his family and build their little life together in Mission. He’s been a Whataburger employee for over 14 years and was working as a store manager in June when Brenda got some troubling news.
Brenda, 30 years old and pregnant, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Cancer is common in her family, but the news still came as a shock.
“You hardly hear about young, 30-year-old, pregnant women getting cancer, you know?” she said. “But I knew I was prone to it, it’s just something that you never want to actually think about. Cancer doesn’t discriminate; cancer doesn’t care who you are. I feel like, at the end of the day, the fight isn’t really with the disease itself, it’s with your mind, because your mind is extremely powerful.”
That disbelief would last through some of Brenda’s early treatment. She was induced at 34 weeks, and the couple’s fourth child, a girl, got to go home after about a week in NICU. Then Brenda sought treatment at MD Anderson in September. She’s been traveling to Houston every Monday for chemotherapy.
“It was hard,” she said. “When I did my first two rounds of chemo, my hair started falling. And I had a lot of hair.”
One Saturday late in September, Brenda was doing housework. Her hair was in a braid, but clumps kept coming loose and falling out. Angry, she finally took a pair of scissors and chopped off the braid.
The next day Brenda asked Mario to cut off the rest. He was nervous, but he used the clippers he usually cuts his own hair with and shaved off what was left of Brenda’s hair in the bathroom.
The Treviño kids gawked for a bit and then started commenting.
“There was a lot of tears,” Brenda remembered. “There was also a lot of laughs. My daughter actually made a comment that I look like the doll with the spider legs from Toy Story.”
Brenda started wearing a little tuque with a flower knitted on top. The family adjusted. The treatments continued.
The treatments, and the hours-long drives that accompany it, are exhausting. After Brenda’s diagnosis, Mario took a break to help care for her and the children. In November, he put in his two-weeks notice.
“Work can give you a lot of material stuff. But it can take away a lot of time, valuable time, you can never get back,” he said.
Brenda says Mario is her backbone. He gets her through the bad days, and now, finally, they’re getting to spend more of the good days together, with their children. They’ll watch movies, or just hang out together as a family.
“Before, my husband always worked, but now that he’s here, he’s able to be a part of all of that in our family,” Brenda said. “It’s like he says, ‘There’s more time than life.’”
There are still bad days, though. Some days, Brenda can’t help but worrying about not dying. She’ll worry about what it’ll take to save her, too: three more chemo sessions, a surgery, five weeks of radiation, another surgery for her double mastectomy. Months worth of torture that will leave her drained and sickly, and won’t guarantee she’ll be out of the woods for good.
“What if it comes back? What am I going to do? If it comes back and it’s not just in my breasts, it’s somewhere out in my body, how much time am I going to be here? Who’s going to take care of my kids?” Brenda said. “Those are my dark days.”
Even if everything goes well, Brenda and Mario are facing an uncertain future. With Mario’s job gone and mounting expenses related to Brenda’s treatment, it’s not so much a matter of whether or not they’ll owe money, but of how much.
“We’re barely starting on the whole stage of seeing how deep, deep, financially wise we’re going to be stuck,” Brenda said last Wednesday while Mario played with their second youngest beside her on the couch. “No insurance, no medical, no money. Your life is on the line, that’s how it works. So, it is a little bit scary.”
Brenda paused there for a moment.
“Not really. It’s a lot scary.”
The couple do a good job of covering up that fear. They’re focusing on the bright side.
In some ways, they say the diagnosis has been a good thing.
“I believe that sometimes God has plans, just like this one, to kind of set you back on track and see where things really need to be at,” Mario said. “Taking that demotion, we’re losing a lot of money, but it was something that was necessary.”
Mario thinks that’s the lesson he’s learned through the ordeal — that some things are more important than things or work or money. Or even appearances.
Those clippers Mario used to cut off Brenda’s hair have been mostly idle this fall. Mario hasn’t cut his hair in months; he keeps the shaggy mane tucked under a baseball cap.
Brenda’s not a fan of the long hair, but she is a fan of the purpose behind it: Mario is planning on growing out his hair and donating it, hopefully to a kid with cancer who can’t afford a wig.
“Before I would never think that. I would cut my hair. I used to do it myself,” he said Wednesday. “But now — this hair is ugly right now, but at some point somebody’s going to appreciate it, and that little kid is going to feel better because they don’t have the income for it.”
“Things like this make you change,” he said, running a hand through the mop of wavy black hair. “They make you look at life different.”
That’s the way Brenda’s looking at things too.
“Out of everything bad that happens, there’s always something good,” she said. “It’s not just darkness with cancer, like people tend to believe the whole time. We try to make the best out of it, not just for ourselves but for our children. They need that.”
To donate to the family and others, call the United Way of South Texas at (956) 686-6331 between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and inquire about contributing to the Spirit of Christmas campaign. Due to COVID-19, only monetary donations are being accepted for families in need.