Confronted with very serious illness requiring almost a dozen difficult and life altering surgeries, radiation treatment and chemotherapy, most people would have given up and lost all hope. Mia Rivera picked up tennis instead and started helping other unfortunate victims of sickness and hardship. Today she is ranked #2 in Southern California tennis tournaments at 3.5 level, and unstoppable in her optimism.
Growing up in the Oakland/San Bruno area of Northern California, Mia Rivera played some tennis and wrote beautiful poetry in High School. During her college years at UC Berkeley she discovered that her love for writing poetry evolved into a natural talent for writing songs. Following college she went into the music business and moved to Los Angeles. Her career seemed to take off with her focusing on the entertainment arts and making a name for herself in Southern California.
In May of 2006, at age 37, Mia was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer which came with life changing implications.
She recalls, “I was very, very sick on dose-dense chemotherapy and couldn’t do anything besides watching TV. But I quickly tired of talk shows and daytime TV and began searching for other forms of entertainment. I was beginning to watch tennis matches while they were broadcast from various tournaments and loved it! They so inspired me, even though I couldn’t even walk then.” Mia felt like she was playing vicariously through those televised tennis matches and adds, “I hadn’t played tennis since I was a kid, but all of a sudden, it became very important to me to set a goal to play again. This seemed impossible at the time, but it also seemed important. I guess it gave me something to strive for beyond challenges like how am I going to walk from the living room to the bathroom.”
While in the middle of her surgery marathon, she started asking how each surgery would affect her ability to play tennis. But her doctors maintained that she would never be able to play tennis again. “I remember the 1st day on the court… I could only volley at the net for a maximum of 5 minutes before becoming exhausted. My lung had also been radiated and fluids built-up around it had caused collapse. One of my surgeries was to drain the lung sac to help bring the lung back.”
Permanent damage due to the radiation was done to the lung along with many other cancer-related problems along the way, including: major weight loss followed by major weight gain; Neuropathy; more fragile bones leading to broken ribs, a broken wrist and a broken arm. “Hand-Foot Syndrome”; Radiation Recall; ongoing Lymphedema leading to cellulites and usually a few hospital stays per year.
Mia continued to press her desire to one day play tennis again. She recalls, “One of my surgeries cut a stomach muscle on the right side (my tennis side), so that surgeons told me that I wouldn’t have the strength or ability to play tennis. My oncologist said that my Lymphedema, again on my tennis side would not permit me to use that arm to play tennis. But in my opinion, the heart is the strongest muscle and makes up for the weakness of many other muscles… I think if you put your whole heart into anything, you’re a WINNER!”
And Mia Rivera certainly looks like a winner today. Despite ongoing health struggles and more surgeries in the future, she took an on-court class in Encino and developed a serious talent for hard, competitive tennis. Today she plays tennis tournaments, she’s on two USTA Adult League Teams and plays USTA Flex League. Her current ranking of #2 Ladies’ Singles in Southern California at NTRP level 3.5 tournaments speaks volumes, together with the fact that she and her tennis partner Debbi Goldman of Encino are undefeated in Flex League doubles.
Debbi raves about her friend Mia: “Ever since I met Mia, I knew she was someone special. She is the most generous person-with her time, money, expertise. As soon as she finds out that someone needs help of any kind, Mia is first in line to help out. When she found out that a member of our tennis community was battling cancer, she wasted no time in setting up a tennis tournament with all the proceeds going directly to their family.”
Debbi Goldman feels that Mia has made a significant impact on our community through her caring and kind spirit.“Mia is proof of someone who never gives up. When someone tells her she can’t do something, that just makes her want to try harder to succeed. She has overcome adversity due to her strong will and determination. Mia is truly an inspiration.”
Mia’s mother Sandy Rivera remembers, “One lady from Thousand Oaks, who was referred to Mia by a lady she met at Petco, had just been diagnosed with a recurrence of Breast Cancer and was not working and very alone. Mia went out to Thousand Oaks and took her to lunch several times to discuss the lady’s needs. When they left their lunch that day, Mia had gathered a list of things the lady needed, and at their next lunch Mia provided her information so she could get meals delivered to her home, free transportation to and from doctor appointments, nearby free support groups, and also left her with a grocery gift card. She does this kind of thing all the time, with no outside contributions, just out of her own pocket and time. I can only imagine what she could do if she had more funds.”
Another one of Mia’s tennis partners is Jon Covington, Network Engineer at UCLA Health Systems. Jon says, “Mia has a very strong and attractive human synergy, you want to be around her! Even on her bad days you can feel from her how precious life is. May she continue to live in the hearts of many!”
According to Michael Laskow, Founder and CEO of TAXI, an Independent A&R Company and Veteran Music Engineer/Producer, Mia Rivera has affected the community of songwriters and recording artists, many of whom she’s never even met. Laskow explains, “Mia worked at my music business company for several years before she was diagnosed with cancer. While she worked here, Mia’s incredible positivity helped inspire our songwriter and artist clients to face adversity, face rejection, and keep forging ahead.” Michael loves the inspiration Mia provided in her job. “Not only has Mia’s story inspired songwriters to never give up, it’s also inspired their friends and family members who are also battling cancer. Little did Mia know that her inner strength and relentless positivity would be spread all over the world to more than 100 countries!”
Annette Fasteau, USTA Singles Tennis Tournament Player from Toluca Lake, remembers, “We have practiced a lot and she has taught me to approach my tennis and my life in a positive, energized way. On the court, she has an incredibly strategic and creative game.Off the court, she deals with tough stuff that same way. In life and in tennis, she is focused, energized and positive.”
Mia Rivera turned from cancer victim to cancer fighting heroine and inspiration for others with life threatening illness. “Good begets good,” is her motto. “Next year we’ll organize an even bigger tournament to help even more people.”
Knowing what it feels like to be in a hopeless situation and confronted by endless surgeries and worries, Mia has set out to help others with fundraisers and passing out information on free cancer organizations. Her brother Mike, diagnosed with inoperable Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma, and subjected to even more chemo and radiation than herself, is Mia’s hero. Last January, Mia organized a tennis tournament fundraiser for her friend Becky Saltoon, her husband Al, and their family.
Becky Saltoon, USTA Tennis Player from Van Nuys, was clearly touched by Mia’s generosity and giving spirit. “A year ago, my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. My first call was to my tennis buddy Mia, who had herself survived cancer. She was so amazing, not only by providing much needed support but she also organized a fundraiser to help raise money for our medical bills.”
Becky decided to share this spirit and bring it out into her community. “When the event finally happened, my husband was literally awestruck. For so many people to come support our family, when most didn’t know him, only me through tennis, he was inspired. It all had to do with Mia’s don’t quit attitude and her desire to help a fellow tennis buddy. It has inspired us to start our own organization to eventually help other families the way Mia helped ours. Mia is an amazing woman and an incredible asset to our community.”
Mia’s mom Sandy recollects that her daughter always tells women, young and old, “please get a mammogram, catching this disease early can make such a significant difference in life, quality of life and treatment”. Sandy adds, “When she sees someone wearing a pink ribbon, she thanks them for supporting the cause and tells them that she is a cancer warrior or survivor herself so that people can put a name and face on the cause.
Michael Laskow summarizes about Mia, “Good things come in small packages. Mia Rivera is a scrappy little woman who has moved some really big mountains in her own life, and continues to inspire others the world over to move theirs.”
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