From Woman’s Day
It was fall of 2019, and Mandy Gonzalez appeared to be unstoppable. The actress and singer was starring in Hamilton on Broadway and had just landed a gig as the soloist for the Philadelphia Pops during the upcoming holiday season. Plenty of people grow up loving to sing, but Gonzalez, who has a work ethic that’s even more impressive than her incredible voice, was living out her childhood dreams.
When Gonzalez went to her annual gynecologist visit, her doctor asked her if she wanted a mammogram, since she had just turned 40. There was no history of breast cancer in her family, but many women on her husband’s side had experiences with breast cancer, so she opted to do the mammogram. “It was my first mammogram so I didn’t know, but all the sudden I was in the doctor’s office for a while,” Gonzalez tells Woman’s Day. “They were like, ‘OK, we need to get a 3D mammogram now,’ and I was like OK, and then it was, ‘Now we need to get an ultrasound,’ and I was like OK. And I remember going, ‘Don’t look at the ultrasound, Mandy, because you’re not a doctor; you don’t know what it is.’ But I’m super curious. I remember looking and seeing a circle, and I just knew something was wrong. From that moment I think I just started crying.”
After a series of tests, Gonzalez was told she had stage one breast cancer — a cancer that approximately one in eight women will encounter in their lives. “I never expected them to find anything,” Gonzalez says. “But when they did, my life changed. I really think that there was life before my breast cancer diagnosis and now there’s life after my breast cancer diagnosis. It definitely changes you.”
Things moved very quickly after the diagnosis, Gonzalez says. She met with various doctors and found one to do the surgery to remove the cancerous cells as well as an oncologist to monitor her cancer treatments moving forward. But even a cancer diagnosis, which has the power to stop most people in their tracks, couldn’t make Gonzalez slow down. “I play Angelica in Hamilton eight times a week on Broadway,” she says. “And not only that, I’m doing concerts, and a lot of different projects. So it was like, how do I do this and continue to work? How can I figure that out?”
Luckily, Gonzalez had the support of her family and her doctor on her side. “[My doctor] said to me, ‘You can do it,’ and I really needed to hear that,” she says. “That Christmas was my first year singing as a soloist for the Philly Pops, so not only was I doing Hamilton on Broadway, but I was going to Philly every week to go perform with the symphony. And to be a soloist with the Philly Pops, I mean you wait your entire life for that to happen as a singer. So I didn’t want this to stop me. I did that whole Christmas show, and nobody knew.”
Working while undergoing cancer treatment is, as one can imagine, incredibly difficult. It’s a mental and physical battle, especially in a career like Gonzalez’s which is so physically demanding. But Gonzalez found solace in her ability to continue working, and says it gave her a sense of normalcy and a creative outlet that lifted her spirits. “In some ways, it was very freeing because I’d been singing my entire life,” Gonzalez explains. “Since I was a child it has been a source of happiness for me. It’s a source of my comfort, so being able to express myself through song and through an incredible story like Hamilton, I felt like I was right where I needed to be.”
Of course, the emotional lift it gave her didn’t erase the physical toll it took. “When I finally stopped working on March 12th, I realized how much my body needed to rest,” she says, referring to her first day off after stage productions were shut down due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “But I think during that time it was very important for me to feel like I could keep going, that cancer wasn’t going to take all of me. I think silencing my voice would’ve been a big blow for me emotionally.” Being able to perform gave her a way to “escape for five minutes from my cancer diagnosis.”
Just as her cancer diagnosis threw a wrench in her plans, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic landed another blow. One thing Gonzalez had always been able to rely on during her cancer treatment was the support of her family, but strict safety protocols put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 meant that her husband could no longer be by her side during her chemotherapy sessions.
“My husband was with me for everything,” Gonzalez says. “I couldn’t imagine going through this without him. But because of COVID-19 it changed, and I could no longer have anybody in the room with me. I was really afraid to be there by myself, but I think once I saw the nurses, and their eyes had so much love and compassion, I felt like I can do this.” She was able to rely on the support of the nurses and the other patients in the waiting room who were going through similar experiences for support, and waiting patiently for her in the parking lot during each of her treatments was her husband. “Somebody said this really great, they said, ‘Cancer isn’t a me disease, it’s really a we disease,'” she says. “Because it does affect your whole family, and everybody that loves you is part of it.”
Gonzalez says she has learned a lot from her experience, the most important being the realization that she can and needs to be her own advocate. “Women in all cultures get so busy with everything,” she says. “We get so busy with taking care of the family, taking care of the kids, taking care of work, and wanting to be the best and having to work harder to prove ourselves. But I think there has to be a little voice inside that says — and it’s not every month that you have to go to the doctor — but once a year you’ve gotta go. And if you feel something, even if your doctor says oh it’s probably nothing, you demand to get a mammogram.” And putting yourself and your health first is not at all selfish. “I’m a working mom and I put everybody else first,” Gonzalez says. “But the thing I’ve learned is you have to put yourself first, and that doesn’t mean you’re putting other people last. Putting yourself first and watching over your health helps your entire family.”
As of June, Gonzalez has finished chemotherapy and radiation. And overall, despite the heartbreak she feels regarding Broadway still being shut down and general pandemic stress, she says she feels good.
“We’re coming up on Thanksgiving, and I feel beyond grateful for what cancer research has done to allow me to be here,” she says. Her gratitude for the research that aided in her treatment is what led her to get involved with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, whose advisory board she now sits on. As someone who has gone through breast cancer treatment, she feels passionate about raising awareness about the disease, encouraging women to be advocates for their health, and encouraging people to aid breast cancer research so hopefully a cure can be found. “Research is everything,” she says. “I feel that having gone through breast cancer and sitting in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City, there’s women, and men as well, of all different ages, races, cultures, and we’re really all in this together.”
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