Pink Issue: Knowledge is Power

Margo Portillo’s cancer story is an inspiring one — filled with insights that others may find helpful if they or their loved ones have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Margo Portillo’s cancer story is an inspiring one — filled with insights that others may find helpful if they or their loved ones have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

On January 25 of this year, Margo Portillo, vice president of Tramex Travel in Austin, TX, was on a plane out of Houston, headed for Vienna. It was the middle of the night when she was awakened by flight attendants, who were anxiously looking for something. Turns out, they were searching for a bomb. “You mean I’m going to survive cancer and I’m going to blow up over the Atlantic?” Margo said to her husband, Juan.

The flight made an emergency landing, but it was indeed just a bomb scare. “I dodged that bullet,” Portillo says with a laugh.

That was just one of the dramatic events that month for the Portillos, who opened Tramex Travel 32 years ago. The agency, a member of Signature Travel Network and a BCD Travel Affiliate, today generates about $15 million in annual sales with a mix of 55 percent corporate and 45 percent leisure travel. Through the years, the couple weathered the changes in the travel industry and enjoyed the challenges of bringing up a full house of children. But the recent months have been a challenge, as Margo Portillo was diagnosed with breast cancer last December.

As it turns out, the diagnosis, surgery and follow-up treatment all went relatively quickly and Portillo had strong spirits throughout. In fact, she feels so fortunate, she almost hesitated to be interviewed for this article, knowing that others have had a much tougher time with the disease. But her story is an inspiring one — filled with insights that others may find helpful if they or their loved ones have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Now, back to that bomb scare. That dramatic incident simply capped off what had been a tumultuous month, which had gone down something like this:

Margo Portillo, an Austin native, has long been diligent about staying on top of annual health exams. “I’ve always said that I never want to be on the other side of the desk and have the doctor say to me, ‘Had you come in just six weeks earlier, we could have saved you,’” she tells Travel Agent. And so, last December, she scheduled checkups with her gynecologist and her general practitioner, and had her annual mammogram done, all in sequence.

It was during the digital mammogram that a lump was discovered in her breast.

“You know something’s up when they start asking you to come to a different room and it’s dark and then more doctors walk in and you’re like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good. This is not good news. This is not a normal thing,’” recalls Portillo.

The health officials told her not to panic but to get a biopsy done immediately. She had the choice of getting it done at the imaging center or through a surgeon, Kelly Martinez. A board-certified breast cancer specialist at the Texas Oncology at the time, Martinez was recommended by Portillo’s female GP, Dr. Sadhana Patel, who advised if the biopsy proved positive, Portillo would already be with the surgeon who would operate on her. Portillo luckily got in to see her right away.

“I just started dialing buttons on the phone because, of course, all you want is for this thing to be gone, to be out,” recalls Portillo.

Martinez was very detailed and precise in describing what the possible next steps would be; she also requested that Portillo return the very next morning after the biopsy to discuss the results.

For Portillo, being asked to return right away was a tip off that something was wrong. “I think she saw something on the sonogram,” she says.

When she returned in the morning, she was the one to speak first. “I know I have cancer,” said Portillo. It wasn’t just a hunch; she had already received an e-mail from Texas Oncology welcoming her to their patient portal. Dr. Martinez was surprised to hear of the e-mail, but confirmed the diagnosis and that the cancer was a slow growth. She then laid out how she would conduct the surgery and how she anticipated things working out. Portillo left the office with a binder of information and an open invitation to call with any questions. Martinez also advised her to immediately set up an appointment at Texas Oncology with an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Portillo’s immediate thought upon receiving her diagnosis? “‘OMG, I have no time for this! I have way too much going on in the first half of 2016.’ Plus my youngest son was getting married in June. All that raced through my head was chemo, a wig and a zillion-degree temperature in late June in Texas! How absolutely lovely would that be? I could just envision myself ripping off the wig at the reception. Wigs and heat do not go together!”

Waiting and Wondering

It was December 30, 2015. Surgery for a lumpectomy was scheduled for January 11. Portillo says it went well; the diagnosis was a slow growth tumor that was “Stage IIb.” “Stage II because of the size of the tumor and ‘b’ because one out of the five lymph nodes that were removed showed cancer,” recalls Portillo.

The next step? Wait for the pathology report.

“It’s the not-knowing that makes you so crazy,” says Portillo. What she also recalls about this time was her transition from being a very modest person to becoming comfortable with everyone complimenting the artistry of her surgeon’s work, she says.

“Every person, the oncologist, the radiologist, the radiology technician, the nurses at the radiology center, every single person who has seen this surgery said, ‘What a great job,’” says Portillo.

Waiting for test results was probably the toughest time for Portillo, but she is, after all, a travel professional who still has many destinations to tick off her bucket list. And so she had a question for her doctor while she was waiting: “I have to leave for Vienna on the 24th of January. Will I be able to make it?” Understandably, the doctor’s answer was that she’d have to wait and see.

And so she waited until January 23 for her results. The news was good. The Oncotype DX test report indicated that Portillo’s “Recurrence Score” was 11, a nice, low number that meant there was a very small chance of the cancer recurring and that chemotherapy was not recommended. Instead, she would have to undergo 33 doses of radiation therapy and take Letrozole, a hormone therapy pill, for the next five years. Since Portillo’s doctor wanted her to wait at least two weeks to begin radiation as she was still healing, she got the green light to go to Vienna for a business trip.

That’s when the bomb scare happened, but Margo and Juan made it to Vienna eventually. “Now, mind you, I did look a bit weird much of the time, walking around with my right hand on my hip. I looked like ‘I’m a little tea pot,’” says Portillo, who reports she did have intensive nerve pain that calmed down after about eight weeks.

When she made it back home, she underwent radiation treatments five days a week (“You get weekends off,” quips Portillo) from February 16 through March 24.

How were those treatments? “They are a piece of cake in the beginning, but then they build up to where you are burned pretty badly,” Portillo reports, noting that it was akin to having 33 days of a consecutive sunburn on her underarm, where her lymph nodes are located.

Even so, she was able to travel immediately after the treatments ended. “My radiologist could not believe I was receiving my last treatment and then dashing out the door to board a plane,” she says. This time, she and Juan were en route to Brussels, just five days after that city’s airport had endured terrorist attacks; they were headed for Antwerp for the Signature Travel Network 2016 Member Appreciation Cruise.

Finding Balance

How was her day-to-day work life affected during all this? “In my case, other than the day of surgery I didn’t miss any work,” says Portillo. “What did affect me was, I unable to go to yoga class for almost four months. This really took a toll on me mentally, because I’m used to going to class four to six times a week, when I’m in town. It’s my sanity. I thought I would be back in the saddle much sooner…but you just do not realize what you are going through until you go the distance.”

As for balancing doctor’s appointments, tests and treatments, she tells us, “You just do. You just run like crazy, because who has time for cancer?” Since she is an agency owner and not a front-line booking agent, she also had total flexibility with her work schedule, which allowed her to work around all of her appointments.

“I have incredible employees, especially Maryanne Castaneda, my director of operations, who is all things to humanity and has been all things to us for 31 loyal years. I am so blessed,” says Portillo.

“Was I scared? Yes, of course. Every- one is when they hear the word ‘cancer’! I was particularly scared when I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know how ‘wrong’ it was. The waiting for test results is the hardest; the ‘what you do not know’ is scary. But once you’re diagnosed and your team comes up with a plan of attack, then the worry subsides a little.”

She said finding the right surgeon right away made all the difference. If Dr. Patel had not recommended Dr. Martinez, Portillo would have chosen to have the biopsy done at the imaging center and then looked for a general surgeon on her own.

That she immediately got in with a strong medical group, Texas Oncology, and that all the doctors were linked together made all of the difference because they were all communicating with each other.

“I had phenomenal doctors, just phenomenal,” says Portillo.

She also had her own personal team. “I had the greatest, and I mean the greatest, support system ­— my family, my company ‘family,’ friends and incredible health providers.” She is also grateful for a professional organization in Austin — Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas (see sidebar), a support organization that reached out to her right after her diagnosis and whose mantra is, “Our board is passionate about ensuring no one in Central Texas faces breast cancer alone.”

“I just can’t say enough wonderful things about all these people,” says Portillo.

What would she recommend to someone who is going through the process of possibly learning she has breast cancer?

“There are several things I can say to someone who has a ‘scare,’” says Portillo. “First of all, know that 80 percent of all lumps are benign. Secondly, if you do have cancer, find the very best doctors who work hand-in-hand for the smoothest, most comprehensive care and treatment. Knowledge is powerful. Reach out to all parties who can help you or educate you. Know what you are facing and how you will battle it and defeat it. And for goodness’ sake, have your annual mammogram and do your monthly self exams. They can save your life!”

She also advises to be sure to request a digital exam as well while having a mammogram. “It may cost a few dollars more, but it will be so worth it,” says Portillo. “And lastly, above all, try and maintain as positive an attitude as you can.”

“Get moving and do the things you want to do, because you never ever know what tomorrow will bring. Life is precious – make the most of it.”

It’s been a whirlwind year. Juan, Margo’s husband, was challenged with his own cancer scare, but convalesced in time for their son to walk down the aisle and get married on June 25.

That added challenge gave Portillo a major takeaway from what she and her family have gone through.

“I’ve always been a terribly time-conscious individual,” she tells Travel Agent. “Time is fleeting, especially as we grow older. When you are confronted with the ‘Big C,’ it sends a message loud and clear: Get moving and do the things you want to do, because you never ever know what tomorrow will bring. Life is precious – make the most of it.”

And indeed, she is doing just that. When we spoke to her for this article, she and Juan were headed to Cuba for the first time. “There are many parts of the world I have yet to see,” she says. “I tend to return to places I love, which is anywhere in Europe, San Miguel, the Carolinas, and the Northeast. But I also have lots of bucket-list places. So many places, so little time!” 

Contribute: Helping Women Post-Treatment

Margo Portillo says that throughout her cancer treatment she had a great support system, which included the Breast Cancer Resource Center in Austin, TX, whose motto is, “No One Should Face Breast Cancer Alone.” On behalf of Margo, Travel Agent magazine will be donating a portion of the advertising proceeds from this, our Pink Issue, to the Breast Cancer Resource Center. The funds that are received will be used to help the women financially after their treatment ends.

Breast Cancer Resource Center began in 1995 and has been expanding its programs and services ever since. The BCRC provides guidance, education and assistance through patient navigators who are also breast cancer survivors. In 2015, it provided these services to 2,400 women in Central Texas.

“Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is terrifying for some, overwhelming for many and unsettling for most,” says Ray Anne Evans, executive director of the BCRC. “When treatment ends, the experience isn’t over,” she tells us. “There are physical and emotional side effects from the treatment, bills to be paid and tests to be done. Breast Cancer Resource Center will use the donated funds to assist women who have completed breast cancer treatment with their basic needs such as rent, utilities, food and gas. Our goal with this fund is to continue assisting our clients as they begin to heal physically, emotionally and financially from breast cancer. Women receiving these funds must fall within 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines.”

For more information, or to donate on behalf of Margo Portillo, visit