Malinalli Cervantes has been on a harrowing journey these past few months. Her beloved mother, Xochitl Cortez, received the devastating diagnosis of advanced stage three breast cancer. But the realization came frustratingly slowly, says Malinalli, especially given Xochitl’s persistent vigilance over her increasingly alarming symptoms. “My mom was misdiagnosed. We had the suspicion that she had breast cancer two or three years ago. At first when she brought it up, it was very brushed under the rug. Her concerns weren’t really taken that seriously. She was finding really small bumps. Later on, they performed a routine mammogram and ultrasound and said it was benign cysts without any risk. This was December 2019 and again July 2021. They didn’t do further testing such as a biopsy or MRI to actually confirm benign cysts. She asked for a further screening so she could see what it looked like. They looked at it and they told her, ‘Yeah, it just looks like you have a lot of cysts and the radiologists know what they are looking for.’ By August 2021, her cancer grew to the size of a mango in her left breasts. That is extremely big. Cysts don’t get that big. So she felt really frustrated.” Xochitl was haunted by her father’s fate, an anxiety only compounded by delays in care and a feeling of isolation. ”A year or two years prior, my grandfather had died from cancer, even though he had regular care, and they didn’t catch it in time. The doctors ran tests and he was waiting for treatment. They found out he had cancer after he died. I feel like that really scared her and she didn’t wanna have that same fate. She didn’t want to be overlooked and have her concerns overlooked to the point where it would grow and be more threatening. And yet despite her advocating for herself, it did end up happening. It was not until October that she secured breast care to drain her ‘cyst.’ It was then that she was diagnosed with a potential stage 2 cancer. After further testing (a biopsy, ultrasound, mammogram, MRI and CAT scan). it was changed to Stage 3A. When she asked the radiologist to explain to her how just two months ago she only had benign cysts and now diagnosed with an invasive cancer. He said that they made a mistake and that 20% of women with dense breast cancer fall in this category. To my mother this meant that her doctor should have ordered a biopsy on concerned cysts or MRI/CT/PET scans to detect tumors based on her original concerns. However, these tests are expensive and not routinely performed. It’s part of the medical industrial complex that puts profits over people and proper health care to save costs. To make matters worse, due to scheduling conflicts, they pushed back her surgery date back by two weeks. Through a second opinion, she later found out that this was not the standard of care. She should have been given chemo immediately following the diagnosis of invasive breast cancer and as a result she had a recurrence at her breast tissue just 4 weeks after a double mastectomy where her cancer not only mutated to a triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) but also spread to her internal mammary nodes and a node near her collarbone. This delay and lack of standard of care resulted in her cancer being recategorized as a Stage 3C- TNBC diagnosis, which is the stage before Stage 4. Another unwavering statistic because Black and women of color are disproportionately affected by TNBC. TNBC differs from other types of invasive breast cancer in that it tends to grow and spread faster, and has fewer treatment options and tends to have a worse outcome. It’s been really hard for her to be hopeful and feel like she’s in the right hands. She’s had a lot of experiences lately that have made her feel overlooked, silenced and dismissed. I think it’s been really hard because she also doesn’t know the academic languages for medical terms and this is all very new to her. She’s trying to learn, she’s trying to navigate. She is her biggest advocate, but it’s really hard because she feels like her doctor should be. I feel like she hasn’t really gotten that attention that she deserves.” Facing apathy from the medical field is nothing new for women of color, often at the cost of their lives. “There have been many studies that show that doctors usually dismiss the physical pain of Black and brown women. There’s such a high statistic of Black women dying in childbirth because their concerns are overlooked. Their voices are not deemed as priority.”
This reality cut close to home for Xochitl, who had already endured a terrifying and nearly fatal birth experience seven years prior. “When my mom was pregnant with my younger twin sisters, she developed a placenta abruption where her placenta detached from her inner wall of her uterus. The high risk doctor who was supposed to turn one of my sisters because she was breached kept telling her that she was healthy and rested her fears that something was wrong. This pregnancy seemed more complicated than her evaluation and pregnancy explanations. And so there were a lot of complications following a natural birth. My second sister got stuck and after she finally came out, my mom had a near death experience where she was bleeding out and wouldn’t stop. And they tried everything. There was a balloon method to try to push back the walls and stop the bleeding. They had to do an emergency hysterectomy and take out her uterus and all her organs. They did multiple surgeries to try to stop the bleeding. They didn’t know the cause of it until after birth when her placenta was sent out for a pathology report. It turned out she had placenta accreta, affecting .02% of pregnancies and a condition that could be fatal. My mom lost 33 units of blood – two and a half people’s worth of blood. They kept on having to give her blood transplants because she kept on losing blood. She wouldn’t stop and her body wouldn’t clot. She tapped out their blood bank and at the end of it, they had to sedate her. She wasn’t awake for another day and remained in the hospital for a total of 17 days to address secondary medical issues…I remember the doctors having to tell my family that my mom was not gonna make it and that all they could do for us is just ask us to pray and call their clergy to give their farewells.. That was a really shocking reality. It was really scary because I was 13 and gonna have younger sisters and the idea of my mom not being there was very frightening. So going through cancer with her 7 years exactly to the date is difficult. My mom’s cancer is only getting worse and now my sisters are seven and I’m 20. And I think that reality still scares me.”
The pain of abandonment by doctors who are supposed to protect and heal remains real as Xochitl does her best to confront a very uncertain future day by day. “My mom is always super on it when it comes to advocating for herself. But when it comes to something very personal, like giving birth, you expect that everyone who’s supposed to be there will be there. You expect that you’re gonna be under really good care, really good hands. She almost passed away from childbirth and throughout her pregnancy she was having a lot of complications but the expensive imaging was never done. She would bleed with simple movements and going into delivery her platelet levels were really low. So there was that chance of her bleeding out and not being able to stop, but there wasn’t really that level of concern. I feel like her having cancer is bringing back that trauma from that experience, especially for her because she is just feeling a lot of fear. She’s wondering, ‘Is what happened to my dad going to happen to me? Is what happened when I gave birth going to happen again?’ I think that there’s a lot of that fear, especially around the fact that she was misdiagnosed. She had to change doctors repeatedly as well because some just didn’t have patience for her questions and concerns, which is very unprofessional.” What happened to doctors’ hippocratic oath: I will follow the system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.
With her mother’s support, Malinalli made the decision to share their story on social media. While the response was overwhelmingly positive, she was appalled by some of the callous reactions. “When I posted my mom’s story, a lot of people did not take it seriously. A lot of people made it into a joke. I had to block some people in the comments. There’s also a sexual nature that people tend to do of sexualizing and objectifying women’s bodies, especially women of color. When I was very vulnerable with my mom’s story and posted it, I was flooded with people sexualizing my mother’s breasts in the comments. It was very uncomfortable and people were doing that to make fun of the situation, which I found to be very hurtful. Especially because this could be your mother, this could be your aunt. These can be the women in your lives. You’re choosing to mock my own. It was very disgusting that some people just don’t take this stuff seriously and tend to mock it and sexualize it. They think it’s funny to joke about when this is a struggle in everyday people’s lives. In my family, I always have someone who is struggling with getting the medical care they need or support that they need. That was really interesting, but at the same time, I got a lot of very supportive messages. People reached out telling their own stories. I didn’t feel alone. Putting out that space to talk about it really invited a lot of positive feedback that I was really appreciative of.”
Her valid critique of the medical system that inadvertently prevented Xochitl from accessing treatment earlier was falsely interpreted as an attack on doctors, when it was instead aimed to address racial biases among medical professionals and the medical industrial complex. “I was getting a lot of Instagram comments and DMs and people on TikTok that were saying, ‘Doctors are there to help. Your mom didn’t try enough. Why are you blaming doctors? They didn’t do anything.’ It’s not that I’m blaming doctors (but the research does support bias on Black and brown women in the medical industrial complex). I’m blaming the subconscious biases that we all carry and have. It’s our responsibility as individuals to check that bias. We all hold that bias towards people, depending on their sexuality, their race, their ability, their age, so many things. It’s our responsibility to check our own personal biases to not prejudge, especially if you’re working in something as serious as the medical field, because you are going to be working with people of all backgrounds. That’s why I feel like as doctors, you have to be educated on how to treat illnesses, diseases, and people’s everyday health, but you also have to see them as people. There’s that two sided importance of being a doctor and being in the medical field, you have to see people for being people and not hold those biases including informed patients if they are limited to the care they are able to provide. That’s the point I was trying to make throughout. I feel very upset that there is repetitive misdiagnosis or brushing off concerns of Black and brown women. I just want to emphasize that it’s all about the inherent or very blatant biases that we hold and woven in the fabric of the medical industrial complex.”
Xochitl is hoping to build up her own online content with her daughter’s help. “She wants to do funny videos so she can bring a sense of laughter and share her story, but also build that following so that she can bring awareness to her situation and to other people who might be going through the same thing. By immersing ourselves into different stories of others, it really helps us be more empathetic. A lot of people don’t immerse themselves in different stories and perspectives to build that empathy and to combat those inherent biases as well. I’m seeing more people with different backgrounds go on the app and not seeing TikTok as just a kid’s app. I feel like that’s what it used to be seen more as, but a lot of people have been coming on sharing their perspective, their stories, their wisdom. I’m loving it because that’s what social media should be used for – to share those ideas, share those perspectives. I’ve been really enjoying it. I love watching people speak their truths, their experiences and their identity.”
As one of the most prominent gay Latina voices on TikTok, Malinalli feels honored to represent both communities, specifically the unique journey of being LGBT and Latinx.”In Latinx culture, being gay is not something that’s usually talked about. It’s very shameful. A lot of people are very Catholic and Catholic church raised and it’s not in the Catholic agenda to be gay. There is a lot of machismo with men. There are women who have that internalized misogyny that they carry and try to pass on through different generations of women, telling them they have to act like this, they have to be the perfect wife, you have to marry and have children. There are these roles. And I feel like breaking away from that. It’s very difficult. I feel like a lot of other Latina queer women can relate in terms of having that intense judgment from their family of not fitting that role. I feel really happy when I get messages saying, ‘You really inspired me to come out to my family.’” Many of her followers cherish her as a long awaited departure from mainstream Latinx representation and beauty standards. “People will tell me, ‘I never met someone with an indigenous name like me. This is really exciting to see someone who looks like me.’ When I get those messages, I start crying because I’ve always craved for someone to be in the media with an indigenous name because I feel like the Latinas that we see in the media are usually very pale. They’re very stereotypical of what the media wants, but there are not a lot of queer indigenous Latinas. I’m just really glad that I’m that for other people. I never would’ve imagined that. I guess that’s why I feel that imposter syndrome, like do I deserve to be here? I don’t know why I’m here, but I am very grateful for those who have contacted me and say how I have inspired them, how it makes them really happy to see that representation in the media. I didn’t really know I had that much of an impact on others until I read those types of messages.I do feel really grateful for that because that’s what keeps on pushing me to create more content.”
She also wants to use her platform to set a positive example and liberate herself from the shame she felt growing up. She has famously flaunted her unshaven armpits as a means of promoting acceptance of body hair on women. “That’s another thing that I’ve been pushing for. There’s a lot of hairy women who, you know, grow hair. I mean, hair is very natural. Every woman has hair and I feel like there’s this expectation to not have hair. That really hurt me as a child. I grew arm hair and I was very self-conscious of it going through puberty. A lot of women are. That’s why I just kind of wanna say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter. It’s just hair, it doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s not a big deal. To me, it’s very much an accessory. If you wanna shave it, that is your choice. But if you don’t, there is no need. I don’t really shave my legs that often, sometimes I do if I want to, but it’s very much this idea of that. There is no need and knowing that breaks down that insecurity and that feeling that I have to abide by social norms.” The association between gender roles and hair growth perplexes her. ”There is this idea of fem and masculine labels on hair.That’s what I want to challenge. How is hair masculine? How is it feminine? This idea can be very harmful to some people, like if you’re not able to shave, if you grow a lot of hair, if you have hormonal imbalances that make you grow a lot of hair, how does that affect everyone? The industry of waxing laser hair removal is a very growing industry. So I feel like there is no issue for me. If I wanna shave one day, I’m gonna do it and there is no issue. And if I don’t want to, there also isn’t an issue.” Embracing her body as it is has been a healing act of radical reclamation. “As a child, I already let those comments take their toll on me. And I don’t mean to give it any more attention. Armpit hair is really sexy. It is. I don’t see an issue with it. Wear deodorant, it won’t smell. How is it bothering you? Hair is very beautiful on the head. It is considered a very feminine thing, but on the body, it’s a different story. People who have a lot of hair on their head most likely will have a lot of hair on their body. Healing that inner child that was very made to feel ashamed of her body hair is to try to take that power back into my own hands and to my own place of decision making and not in a place of shame.”
Much like their cancer journey, Malinalli and Xochitl’s relationship has been one of trials and tribulations. “I grew up with single parents, but was mostly raised by my mom and I have just seen her really struggle and fight to provide for me and my brother when we were younger. She would work a full time job while going back to school and getting her masters. She was always really struggling and jumping from paycheck to paycheck, but always making sure we had our roof over our head, always making sure that we had food in the fridge to eat. I’m really grateful for my mom. She’s the hardest working woman I know. Even though we had those really intense clashing periods for a couple years and I ended up making this decision to move out, I still have always had that respect for her. I just knew that we were probably not the most compatible people living together. And that’s because we saw each other as human beings who have their own personal needs. My mom really, really cares about me and I really, really care about her. We were able to go to family therapy because we both found that we were struggling with a lot of issues, but we wanted to mend our relationship. We just needed assistance. I moved out to LA after I graduated from high school and that’s why I felt like a lot changed in our relationship and it transformed into something that was really healthy and very productive. That space was kind of what we needed.” Her health crisis has brought them closer together too. ”It’s a very vulnerable time where really hard conversations are being discussed. I never thought I would be talking to my mom about certain things. But for me, my mom is my rock. I got a tattoo of her Náhuatl symbol on my spine because she is the center and the core of the woman I am today because I have always looked up to her. She’s filled with so much wisdom and guidance. She has lived a very hard life and has always been the most hardworking person I know. She’s always trying to educate me and my brother on being people who are very empathetic to others, being people who speak up for injustices, people who take action. And I do credit a lot of my identity and my political outlook and my confidence in who I am today to my mom.”
For now, Malinalli is doing her best to be the glue that holds the family together, including helping to care for her young twin sisters whenever she can. “I am teaching them math and how to write in Spanish and English. We’re reading together. They’ll say to me, ‘You’re such a great teacher,’ and there’s a lot of stuff like that. Sometimes I’ll convince them to make a little video with me – they’ll get me to pay them because we’re not giving out free labor here. I’m able to cook for them and they’ll help me cook. So there has been a lot of rekindling that relationship with my younger sisters.” She’s an invaluable emotional confidant to her stepfather, Jason. “He cries about his fears of my mom’s diagnosis and how he can never see himself without her in his life. And so we will have heart to hearts about how we feel and checking up on each other, asking, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I don’t feel like I have that comfort to really ask personally, how are you doing emotionally and not just a simple, okay. But no please do talk to me and let me know because I wanna support you too. It’s not just supporting my mom, but it’s supporting everyone because everyone processes things differently, everyone has different fears, everyone carries themselves differently when they go through a lot of emotional baggage.” Mother and daughter have learned to savor the tiniest of moments. It’s an opportunity for Malinaili to repay a lifetime of nurturing and tenderness. “When I go back home, I get to see my mom. She’s been resting a lot from her chemo sessions. I’m able to ask, ‘Hey, do you want snacks?’ She’s not able to have the energy to do all these things. So to be able to come home and help around the house and to help with my sisters’ work or my mom’s needs like offering to rub her feet or give her a massage. I’m able to give back that motherly feeling she had towards me because she’s going through a lot.”
Her next goal is to branch out her content and brand partnerships into causes that she’s passionate about, galvanized by the ongoing health issues that have plagued her family. “I’m finding sustainability more and more important because my mom’s cancer is environmental. Many of the people in my family have medical issues. Cancer, asthma…a lot of these environmental impacts have affected a lot of people in my family because they grew up in parts of Oakland that were next to the freeway or houses that were infested with asbestos or had lead in the paint on the walls. When children are exposed to lead, that can really affect children’s brain development. So I feel like my mom’s cancer very much being environmental really made me see that there is a need to have more sustainable wear to not have these overly toxic poisons that are really cancerous enter our bodies. I’ve been using clean deodorant that doesn’t have antiperspirant because I don’t want to get breast cancer. There are more things that I’m more aware about and how certain products tend to lead to cancers or tumors. That is an emphasis that I want to go more into. I’ve been trying to work with those brands. It’s really hard since a lot of clean brands don’t wanna pay and I support myself fully living in LA without my parents sending me money. So it’s been really hard trying to make that image for myself and that change. I don’t wanna work with brands that promote things that go against my morals. It’s finding the balance between needing to make ends meet on my own personal bills and wanting to still have the freedom to create content that speaks to what I believe in. Finding that balance is what I’m trying to push more towards and finding brands that have that same mission for a clean product, clean brand and sustainable wear. Consumer fire power is so important, especially if you have the financial means to be able to support brands that are sustainable or clean and instead of spending a thousand dollars on fast fashion. If you have that buying power to change how these brands produce their products, I think that’s very important and those who have the financial ability to do so should.” With Malinalli’s thoughtful guidance and influence, her community will be shepherded into a better and brighter tomorrow.
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A Daughter’s Love: TikTok Star Malinalli Cervantes Faces Mother’s Cancer Battle. Photo Credit (in order): Alexa Treviño, courtesy of Malinalli Cervantes.