Myra Camino and Saleen Sabater felt an instant connection when they met.
Sabater, then 6, had just switched schools after the death of her father. The school staff suggested her for the Big Brother, Big Sister program, and Camino, who works for the organization, came in to match her with the right person — but she quickly realized it actually herself.
“During the interview I felt with connection with her because we had a lot of things in common,” Camino, 39, tells PEOPLE. “My job was to get her a Big Sister, but I actually went to my co-worker and said that I wanted to be her Big Sister. So I kind of matched myself.”
And Sabater felt that she could open up with Camino.
“I felt like I could talk to her really easily,” the now 12-year-old says. “She’s a really good listener, and she’ll understand me whenever I need help.”
They bonded over a love for animals and arts and crafts, and Camino used that shared interest to help Saleen.
“The biggest thing we did was make a scrapbook for her dad,” Camino says. “When I noticed she was having issues in school, I thought it would be a good way for her to talk about the positive things remembered about her father.”
“We got pictures, and we drew and we wrote and we made a whole bunch of things in it,” Sabater adds. “That helped me a lot, because it made me remember all of the things I did with my dad.”
Then, three years into their relationship, Camino discovered a lump on her breast that would turn out to be cancer. But she had recently stopped breastfeeding her son, and thought it might just be a clogged milk duct.
“When I went to see my doctor in January, he never examined me and told me to just wait a few months before I got an ultrasound,” she recalls.
So Camino waited another six months, and her health declined from there.
“During those six months that I waited, my cancer grew, and when I finally got an ultrasound, the ultrasound quickly turned into a mammogram, and that quickly turned into a biopsy,” she says. “Initially it was stage 3 breast cancer, so I went through 16 rounds of chemo, and it was after chemo that they realized it had already spread to my spine, and I had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.”
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Camino says it was “really difficult” to tell Saleen about her diagnosis.
“I was terrified to tell her, because she’s already experienced loss, losing her father,” she says. “But I wanted to let her know that I was going to be okay, and that she didn’t have to worry about me.”
“I was really shocked and really sad because I didn’t want anything to happen to her,” Sabater says. “I was already going through that stuff with my dad, and I didn’t want that to happen again.”
But they were able to stay in touch during Camino’s treatment with frequent texts, phone calls, letters and the occasional hospital visits. And when Camino learned in Jan. 2018, one year after she finished chemotherapy, that there was no more evidence of breast cancer in her body, they were overjoyed.
“We were crying because we were so happy,” Sabater says.
“I didn’t even know what to do with myself, I was in complete shock,” Camino adds.
Because Camino had stage 4 breast cancer, it’s never considered fully “cured,” and she’ll have to continue taking daily medication. But Camino feels like she got a “second chance.”
“I didn’t know that that would be possible for me. I just felt so blessed and so grateful,” she says. “I don’t want to mess up that second chance so I try to do everything I say I’m going to do, because tomorrow’s not promised.”
These days Sabater — who is now in 6th grade — and Camino enjoy doing many of the same things, and started up a list of activities to do together like learning to cook and visiting the Humane Society.
And at the end of June, they learned that Camino was honored by the Big Sister community — and named the national Big Sister of the Year.
“I started crying, I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was so cool,” she says.
The pair got to go to St. Louis for the non-profit’s national conference, and Sabater spoke in front of the thousands of people in attendance.
“Saleen is a shy kid, and it was amazing to see her get up there and tell her story,” Camino says. “It’s been really fun for me to see Saleen come out of her shell.”
“I was really excited because she won such a big award, and she really deserved it,” Sabater says. “I was really nervous to talk to all those people at first, but after I did I felt really relieved and like I could do it again, because I was just so excited.”