In sixth grade, Bianca Muñiz was cast in the school musical for the first time. Growing up in Sleepy Hollow, New York, she had been singing in choir since first grade. It was her thing. At the same time, Muñiz, who was 11 years old, developed a habit of poking the lump that protruded from her lower abdomen. She remembers thinking that it was simply her organs, which were poking out through her slender frame. Later that year, when her mother put her hand on her daughter’s stomach, an argument ensued.
“She told me to stop pushing my stomach out, I said I wasn’t, and she told me to stop,” says Muñiz. “Finally, she realized I really wasn’t sticking it out.”
The two were at the doctor's office where Muñiz was getting an X-ray on her knees. It was a fairly routine visit, until her mother discovered the lump protruding from her preteen’s right ovary.
A biopsy soon revealed that it was ovarian cancer.
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School Musical Rehearsals, Chemotherapy, and Chemo Brain
Muñiz’s father took the family to Paris in April, thinking his daughter wasn’t going to have another opportunity to go. She spent the summer going to camp and hanging out with friends. That fall, she was cast as the lead in her seventh-grade play. Her life appeared typical for someone her age, until she started chemotherapy that November.
Muñiz would spend the next six months in the hospital, coming home only for a week at a time. She was giving up attending school, socializing with friends, and being a typical middle schooler, all for cancer. But she refused to give up the musical and made a deal with her doctors: If her white blood count was stable, she could attend rehearsal once a week. If it wasn’t, they would work to get it up enough so she could practice with the cast, so long as she wore a mask.
“Looking forward to rehearsal every week, that’s what got me through chemo,” says Muñiz. “It makes such a difference if you have something to look forward to. That’s life in general.”
Muñiz says much of her childhood memories have been erased by “chemo brain,” a well-documented occurrence among those who undergo chemotherapy. According to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, as much as 75 percent of chemotherapy patients struggle with memory loss while undergoing treatment and one-third retain this side effect after they finish treatment.
What Muñiz remembers clearly, however, is singing and practicing her lines for her doctors and nurses. She kept up with schoolwork with the help of her favorite teacher, who would visit her once a week. At the end of six months, her case was ruled no evidence of disease (NED). It was good news, but the treatment left a lasting imprint on Muñiz.
“I didn’t want anyone to know I was sick because in my eyes, I was broken,” says Muñiz. “I hadn’t even gone through puberty yet and I was about to go through high school. I didn’t look like everyone else, didn’t have hair, and had an eating disorder for a while because I gained a lot of weight from the steroids I had to be on.”
In true form, Muñiz lightens the tough memories with a joke. “I would go to school in a different wig every day and match it to my outfit, so obviously people could tell, but in my head that was normal and no one would be able to tell.”
A Breast Cancer Diagnosis and More Chemo Side Effects
In high school, Muñiz says she became hyper-aware of her body. She consistently checked herself for tumors and found multiple in her breasts. Her doctor biopsied one, which turned out to be benign. “I was always checking for new ones, always checking to see if the ones I had had grown,” she says.
During her senior year of college, she found a new lump in the same place as the one she had biopsied in high school. “I showed my doctor and she said to keep an eye on it. I was switching insurance then and had to find a new team of doctors,” she says.
When she did find new doctors, a radiologist expressed concern after viewing Muñiz’s mammogram. She had five biopsies in both breasts and received a call from her doctor when she was working a shift at a shoe store in New York City.
“I wasn’t at all surprised that it was cancer, I had been finding these lumps since high school,” she says. “I asked her to call my mom because I didn’t want to tell her, I wanted to finish my shift.”
Muñiz was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 22.
“The second time around, I got acne from the chemo. I was so ashamed, I didn’t leave the house for three days when I started breaking out. I thought, ‘I don’t have hair, I don’t have eyebrows and now I have acne, I can’t be normal now.’ It forced me to realize that it doesn’t matter what you look like, you are not your skin,” says Muñiz, now 26. “I am more than my physical form, that’s what this experience has given me. I am more confident now and I love and respect myself and my body on a level I never had before.”
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Learning About TP53 and Her Increased Cancer Risk
Muñiz was diagnosed with a hereditary cancer gene called TP53, which predisposes her to multiple cancer occurrences throughout her lifetime, especially breast, bone, soft tissue, colorectal, lung, and adrenal gland cancers and leukemia.
“I think everyone should get a genetic test. I’m the only one with this genetic mutation in my family. Everyone should get to know their own bodies and be aware of their changes. My mom found my first cancer and I found my second,” she says.
Muñiz is part of a TP53 cancer screening study. Every year she undergoes a full body MRI, blood work to check for cancer markers, ultrasounds on her pelvis, and a skin cancer check. “It’s very likely that I will get cancer again but if I catch it early, I may not have to do as much to treat it. While it’s annoying, it needs to be done,” she says.
TP53 patients also need to get colon cancer screenings every few years, however, Muñiz says that her first colonoscopy discovered a precancerous polyp, meaning she’ll need a screening every year — something, she jokes, that may be worse than cancer itself.
Muñiz candidly shares her experience with cancer and TP53 on social media @biancamunizofficial, hoping that she can help create resources for others — something she didn’t have.
She recalls looking for examples of young women who had undergone reconstructive surgery following a double mastectomy but couldn't find any examples of people her age. “I thought, ‘No, no, I cannot be the only one and we’re going to talk about this now,” she says.
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Breaking the Stigma and Raising Awareness of Cancer in Communities of Color
According to a study published in February 2018 in The Cureus Journal of Medical Science, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Latina women. Additionally, Latina women tend to be diagnosed at later stages when compared with non-Hispanic whites.
Additionally, a study published in October 2016 in the journal Cancer Control noted that limited studies have been done to understand hereditary cancer risk and gene mutations like TP53 in Latina populations.
“I think it’s important for every race to talk about cancer, but specifically Hispanic women and communities of color,” says Muñiz. “I think it’s better now, more people are talking about these things, but I think there is still a stigma about getting sick. I’m not the only one who felt that way, that getting sick made me weak.”
A Lung Cancer Diagnosis and Music as Therapy
In July 2021, when trying to locate a mysterious blood clot on scans (that has since disappeared), Muñiz’s medical team unexpectedly spotted a tumor on her lungs. She underwent surgery and was diagnosed with lung cancer that was caught early and (following surgery) didn’t need treatment.
Muñiz writes in a recent Instagram post, “There was a moment when I felt scared since I don’t need treatment. I wondered whether they had actually gotten all of the cancer and of course the “what-ifs” ran through my mind. But then I decided to focus on gratitude. I am grateful that I don’t have to endure rigorous treatment again after I finished my breast cancer treatment not too long ago. I am grateful that I get to enjoy my summer and don’t have to change my plans.”
She continues, “As for whether or not I’m worried it’ll come back? To be honest I’ve never been worried about that. With my mutation it’s almost a guarantee that it will, so I just focus on living my life the way I want to live it and if any obstacles come my way, I’ll deal with it then. No point in worrying twice.”
Her outlook remains strong, but Muñiz is no stranger to bad days. “Music is my form of therapy,” she says. “I write my own music and remind myself that these feelings are temporary — you are going to be happy, you are going to feel good again. You've gotten through this before and this is nothing different.”
Muñiz has a music video coming out this November on her YouTube channel titled "Nothing's the Same." It's a song she was inspired to write at 4am after losing another friend in the cancer community and feeling an immense amount of survivor's guilt.