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A Message Of Strength / 'I Want Him To See Me Strong,' Says A Mother Battling Cancer

By Donald P. Myers

April 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Newsday. All rights reserved. 

Juanita Huertas and her only son, Lucas, a 21-year-old Marine, are fighting two different battles half a world apart - the mother against cancer in Corona, and the son with a gun in Iraq.

"We're working pretty hard over here," Lance Cpl. Lucas Matias Huertas, a telecommunications specialist, said in his last letter home.

Although the fall of Baghdad and the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime after three weeks of fighting have eased the fears of many Americans, the Huertas family and others with men and women facing danger in Iraq still suffer.

If it's true that courage is grace under fire, then bravery stretches 6,000 miles - from the battlefront to the home front in Queens.

"My cancer is very severe, but I have a lot of faith," Juanita Huertas, 60, said the other day from the family home. "I don't let the chemo knock me down."

The mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2001, 10months after her son left home for the first time, to go to Marine boot camp. She went through chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer recurred seven months ago. She's now undergoing chemo for the second time.

The son was just 17 when he joined the Marines, a month after he graduated with honors from Xavier High School in Manhattan. "I want to do something for my country," he told his mother, flexing the muscles he had built by pumping iron at home.

The mother's struggle proves that strength is not merely a matter of muscle.

"When I lost my hair because of the chemo," Juanita Huertas said, "I started laughing. I said, 'Look at me! I look like a pencil. This is great.' I don't have to worry about shampoo. I don't have to worry about going to the beauty parlor. Bald is beautiful."

The Queens mother and her husband, Lucas Sr., 71, also have three daughters - Magdalena, 26, Admira, 24, and Nelida, 22. Lucas turned 21 two months ago in the war zone. All the children were born at the same hospital in Queens -Hillcrest, which later became St. Joseph's.

Juanita Huertas, who came to this country from Puerto Rico when she was 10, talked with her son on the telephone last week. Lucas told her that he had gone to Catholic Mass in a little desert chapel.

"Mommy, it was very strange for me to receive Communion while carrying a rifle in my hands," the son said.

"It's sad, but this is what the world has come to," the mother told him. "Just say your prayers at night, and be strong."

Finding strength is not easy, on the battlefront or at home. Like all the other mothers with sons or daughters at war, Juanita Huertas worries about her youngest child - but she tries not to show it. At a recent support meeting of Marine mothers, one woman was crying because she feared for her son's safety.

"You look so calm," the woman told Huertas. "Don't you cry?"

"I do cry," Huertas replied, "but I cry when I'm alone. If I cry when I'm talking to my son, it just makes it harder for him. It's not that it doesn't hurt me that he's in a war, but if I cry, when he's on a mission he's going to think about me crying and he won't have a clear head. I want him to see me strong, so he'll be strong."

Lucas Huertas, a member of the 6th Marine Communications Battalion, worries about his mother as much as she worries about him. Despite her battle with cancer, she tries to put on a happy face for her family.

"My hair used to be black, but after the first chemo, it came back white," Juanita Huertas said. "I loved it. I said, 'God is rewarding me with a nice white hairdo.' It has lots of advantages, you know. The white looks good with everything I wear, every color."

Saturday will be a bittersweet day for the Huertas family. The oldest daughter, Magdalena, will be married to Luis Padilla, 27, at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Corona. Her brother Lucas was supposed to be the best man, wearing his Marine dress uniform. Padilla's brother, Kevin, also a Marine, was to share the best-man duties. Since both are in Iraq, there will be no best man at the wedding.

"Because of the war, our wedding will not be as joyful as we imagined because our two Marines will be missing," Magdalena Huertas said.

The wedding party may be a lot quieter without Lucas. "He's a comedian," the Marine's mother said. "He's always the life of the party." But the neighborhood won't forget the clown of Corona because of the yellow ribbon wrapped around the big maple tree in front of the Huertas house. It's a sign of the courage displayed on both the battlefront and the home front.

"Our mother's cancer is very strong, but she beat the odds the first time," Magdalena Huertas said. "It's a strain on her having her only son gone, but her spirit's strong. We pray for her and we pray for him. We know he will come home safe, and we know she'll beat the cancer again."

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