Alicia Rivera remembers the exact moment she was told she had a 7 percent chance of surviving.
After the 18-year-old sophomore at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn went to get her wisdom teeth removed in November of 2011, what was supposed to be a routine procedure soon turned into a near death experience. While recovering, she went into septic shock and was rushed to the hospital.
Doctors found a mass on her pancreas and immediately diagnosed her with stage one pancreatic cancer, a notoriously deadly disease that kills around 93% of those it infects within 5 years of identification.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m next,’ Rivera tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t understand what was happening to me at the time, I just knew I was too young to die. I had a great uncle pass away from pancreatic cancer, so I knew how deadly it was. I was so scared and nervous.”
Four months later, the psychology major had her pancreas, parts of her small intestine, gallbladder and bile duct removed in a painful and extensive operation. Unable to return to school, Rivera’s friends and family visited her in the hospital.
“My best friends came all the time, but it was really my mom who kept me grounded,” she says. “When I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, she would say to me, ‘Think about your little sister, that girl looks up to you so much, you need to keep fighting for her.’ I mean, how could I not heed her advice when she said things like that?”
Her mother, Yvette Rivera, tells PEOPLE that she never let her daughter think for a second about giving up.
“Alicia is a fighter,” the second grade special needs teacher at P.S. 65 in Queens, New York says. “I never gave her the option to not push through. Alicia is a naturally determined person, so I knew she could beat this. She’s my hero.”
But Rivera didn’t recover from this lethal cancer on her own. After her surgery, she found solace by connecting to other pancreatic cancer patients through The Lustgarten Foundation, an organization that funds research to find a cure.
It’s been almost four years since her diagnosis, and Rivera, living cancer-free since January 2013, looks back at her battle with the notoriously deadly disease as a necessary evil; an experience that, while filled with pain and hardship, has helped her to become the person she was meant to be in life.
“I want people who are suffering to see that there is hope,” she says. “Being diagnosed with this awful thing, and ultimately conquering it has inspired me to help others through personal relationships and through my career.”
Rivera now acts as a spokesperson and public awareness campaign ambassador for The Lustgarten Foundation and speaks publicly about pancreatic cancer on many platforms, reaching thousands of people at sponsored walks and through blog posts she writes for their website.
“Alicia brings hope to those fighting this disease. She beat one of the most lethal types of cancer at such a young age,” Executive Director and COO of The Lustgarten Foundation Kerri Kaplan tells PEOPLE. “She is the face of survivorship for us. People are in awe of her and her story. She realizes how powerful her voice is, and she has dedicated her life to raising awareness. It’s a very, very special thing.”
But the battle for survival isn’t over for Alicia. In fact, it never will be. Without her pancreas and other vital organs, Alicia struggles daily with bouts of pancreatitis and fatigue – and there is always the possibility that the cancer could return.
“Sadly, pancreatic cancer comes back in most patients,” Dr. David Tuveson, professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, tells PEOPLE. “There are long-term survivors, of course, but most patients who undergo surgery relapse typically within 3-5 years.”
But Rivera chooses to think positively about the future. She is currently pursuing a degree in nursing education at Adelphi University after experiencing “the most amazing nursing care” during her long stays at the hospital. She hopes to one day earn her Ph.D.
“I want to give back what I have gotten,” says Rivera. “I want nurses to know that they can have an incredible impact on their patients, much like mine had on me. I think nursing can be a really powerful and impactful career.”
The advice Rivera has to others currently going through what she experienced is clear and simple.
“Stay positive, keep a clear head and look forward. There is always forward. You can’t look back or you’ll lose faith. Push through and stay strong.”