Two months after my 16th birthday, I was preparing for a weekend with my brother at his college. When I went to bed, my knees hurt, which at that point in my life wasn't uncommon, as I had bad knees from sports, so I took some ibuprofen and went to sleep. After being in so much pain that I was unable to sleep, I walked from my room to the kitchen to get a glass of water to take more medicine, and that's when it hit me. I could hardly walk because the pain was so intense -- it was like nothing I had felt before. I woke my mom and asked for advice, something no 16-year-old ever wants to do, and she asked me a question that sent off alarms in both of our heads: "Do you want to go the hospital?"
The only time I had been inside a hospital was when my brother had broken his arm several years earlier, so when I said yes to my mom's question, she immediately got out of bed, grabbed her keys and ushered me, now a crying mess, out to the car and rushed to the emergency room.
My diagnosis: Acute Myeloid Leukemia
On Feb. 14, 2010, after two days of pain management, blood draws, X-rays and meeting with doctors from many specialties, we were given the news. I had acute myeloid leukemia (AML). After being hit with what felt like a ton of bricks I was then transferred to Long Beach Miller Children's hospital to begin treatment for my cancer.
The seven months following that day were the hardest, not only on my body and psyche, but also on my family, friends, academics and social life. The treatment for AML is extremely harsh. I was given what the doctors called a lifetime dose of one type of chemo within those seven months in the hospital -- meaning that I can never be given that type of chemo again or it would be devastatingly toxic to me. My body also submitted to opportunistic infections due to my depressed immune system. As a result, I lost my appetite and began to lose more weight than anyone wanted me to. My brother considered dropping out of college for the semester to come home and help out, but stayed. I was put on independent study and studied when I was capable to finish my schoolwork. Despite what I was going through, I managed to stay on track and graduate with my class. Seeing my friends was a challenge because of my medication schedule, energy levels and the fact that they were all in school still.
I got through treatment in large part thanks to the support I had from my friends, family, and community. Some days a nurse would come in and tell me that I was going to have a new test done that day as a precaution, and other days they would tell me that I was a day away from getting to go home for a week. My mom constantly reminded me that it was okay to be sad and upset and depressed. This disease wasn't something that we were prepared for and being depressed wasn't something to be ashamed of. As soon as I accepted the fact that I was suffering from depression, everything got a bit easier.
Becoming an Ambassador for Kids Affected by Cancer
In spite of all of the hardships and difficulties I was facing, the St. Baldrick's Foundation approached my family with an opportunity for me to be one of five St. Baldrick's 2011 Ambassadors, which represent the more than 175,000 kids diagnosed with cancer worldwide each year. When we said "yes!" we were all unsure of what this new relationship would entail, but we were excited for the opportunity to put childhood cancer in the spotlight.
When people hear about childhood cancers, they often first think of a young, bald child - no one's first thought is of a 16-year-old. So it was a magic moment when I was given the opportunity to work with St. Baldrick's and Stand Up To Cancer on a joint PSA, titled "In Play," featuring cancer in adolescents and young adults (AYA). The PSA is designed to increase awareness about childhood cancers and the critical importance for infants and children, and in particular teens and young adults with childhood cancers, to be treated by pediatric oncologists. Survival rates for AYAs who are diagnosed with cancer at ages 15 through 39 have seen little to no improvement for decades. If they received childhood cancer treatments instead, 30 percent more would survive!
Changing People's Perception of Children's Cancers
Cancers that strike AYAs are often overlooked and parents of adolescents don't believe their tween/teen could have "childhood" cancer after a certain age. One of the most important things I learned in the first week I spent in the hospital is that cancer doesn't care how old you are, what race you are, your gender, socioeconomic status, or if you're happy with your situation in life. My AML didn't care that I was 10 days away from getting my driver's license and that swim season was starting in a week.
Four years later, I still remember the feeling that took over my family and me on Valentine's Day 2010. And every year my friends know that I might need some extra chocolate or a bigger hug to get through the day. But every single day I am so thankful for the opportunities given to me because of my time with cancer.
I am so proud to say that I'm now one year away from being a survivor and that I am working with the St. Baldrick's Foundation to help conquer childhood cancers. With the incredible organizations I've been able to work with, I have really come to see the power of awareness and how much people can do by donating money to organizations that fund much-needed childhood cancer research.