Fighter: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
I am a Fighter
I am a graphic designer, photographer, and had just graduated from nursing school at San Francisco State University. I am happily married for nearly three years to my husband with whom I've been in a loving relationship for more than ten years. Though I had to take a year off from nursing school for inpatient intense chemotherapy treatments, I got back on track and graduated in May of 2015 with a magna cum laude scholastic distinction =).
My illness appeared out of nowhere in the summer of 2013. I have always been the most health-conscious in my family: working out and eating healthily regularly. I had just completed three semesters in nursing school and six semesters of nursing school prerequisite courses. In the beginning of my summer semester break in 2013, my car of ten years broke down all of a sudden during my most financially challenged moment due to the fact that I was in school full-time and could only hold a part-time job at the time. I thought that was one of the most difficult life challenges I've had yet following being laid off from my full-time job in 2008 (which convinced me to make a career-change and take up nursing in a university) and the loss of the house I bought with my family. The next thing I remember following this "tragic" event was I had flu-like symptoms for a week...in the middle of summer! It was then accompanied by a weird uncomfortable sensation deep within my lower abdomen which was only worsened everytime I sat down. I didn't think much of any of these symptoms as my flu-like symptoms finally broke while my lower abdominal discomfort lingered. In the next few months, this lower abdominal discomfort had only gotten worse accompanied with recurrent low-grade fevers, increased heart rate, and weight-loss.
After trying to make an appointment in a low-income county clinic for a month, I was finally called in for a check-up where I was misdiagnosed with prostatitis. I was prescribed antibiotics which did not help my symptoms. With my recurrent fevers and elevating tachycardia, I went to a county hospital's emergency department in fear of a septic shock. The admitting nurse laughed at me for coming in with these "not-so-serious" symptoms, but she admitted me in the E.R. anyway.
After a battery of uncomfortable tests, the doctors found an abscess deep within my pelvis. I was admitted for almost three weeks wherein I had undergone surgery to insert a catheter into the abscess to drain it. The daily drainage of the abscess with normal saline and thrombolytic medications was one of the most painful interventions I've ever experienced in my life!
After being discharged for a week, during my check-up, they discovered that the abscess had come back so I was admitted again for almost a month. During this month of hospital admission, while my abscess was being drained for the second time, I started to have recurrent low-grade fevers again and heavy night-sweats. During the last week of this admission, I felt lymph nodes all over my body had started to swell which convinced the doctors to perform a biopsy on one of them. I was then diagnosed with intermediate stage acute lymphoblastic lymphoma/leukemia.
While I was waiting for the first of many intensive and long chemotherapy treatments to start, my abscess had started to grow to the point that it would impede on my urination and bowel movements. My spleen had also started to swell that would cause me to feel full after only a few bites of food. Right after my first chemo treatment, however, my abscess and swollen lymph nodes and spleen had improved as if almost miraculously. I was so relieved that I thought it was worth the intense tumor lysis syndrome I experienced right after the first chemo treatment.
For a year, I had been admitted 10 times in the hospital for a month or weeks at a time to receive the planned chemotherapies. Each chemotherapy was intensive enough that it was required that I get a PICC line each time I was admitted inpatiently.
After completing the induction and consolidation phases of my treatment in a year, I was finally considered on remission confirmed by a bone marrow biopsy, regular CBC checks, and a PET scan! I had returned to nursing school where I had left it off. For one semester, I felt like I could conquer the world even though I was on many medications including two types of oral chemo drugs and several prophylactics for the two and half year maintenance phase of my treatment.
Then onto my last semester in nursing school in January of 2015! Unfortunately, I started to have coughs that were, at times, streaked with blood. I started to experience recurrent fevers as well and an overall feeling of malaise and fatigue. There were moments that I was so lightheaded and weak that I almost had syncopal episodes. Halfway into my next monthly checkup with my oncologist, I finally decided to head back to the emergency room to get to the bottom of these new recurrent symptoms.
I was then admitted in the hospital under the care of the same amazing team of doctors and nurses. We were trying to confirm whether the sudden and persistent drops in my red blood cell, white blood cell, and platelet counts were caused by my oral maintenance chemo meds...or a recurrence. I had several platelet transfusions, one red blood cell transfusion, several neupogen shots, and a number of IV antibiotics. I also had another bone marrow biopsy to rule out a recurrence or a development of a new form of cancer.
Back at nursing school, while I was precepting with an amazing working registered nurse as part of my graduation requirements, I had my first seizure at the nurses' station. After further assessments and diagnostic tests, it was confirmed that my cancer has recurred in my central nervous system more in the form of leukemia cells.
After finally graduating from nursing school, I had to undergo aggressive radiation treatments, more chemotherapies, and a stem cell transplant at UCSF. My sister had been found to be an excellent donor for me.
I am now in the recovery period from the stem cell transplant. This treatment had been the most challenging one I had gone through yet, physically and psychologically. I'll be receiving the last of five intrathecal Depocyt injection into my spine in a few weeks since the transplant. My Hickman central catheter was just removed recently after being with it since the transplant. I'll be receiving immunizations soon that infants and toddlers get as my immune system is currently as fragile as that of a baby's. My healthcare team and I are also currently in talks about testosterone replacement therapy as my testosterone levels have completely dropped due to having a female donor and a preventative testicular radiation.
Through all these, I have found the arts to be a very useful mode of expressing my thoughts and feelings especially during my low moments. No matter the amount of challenges I've faced, I still see life as beautiful. Life is art.
I am a graphic designer, photographer, and had just graduated from nursing school at San Francisco State University. I am happily married for nearly three years to my husband with whom I've been in a loving relationship for more than ten years. Though I had to take a year off... [Read More]
Stage of Treatment
Currently in treatment
Allogeneic Stem Cell Transplant
Bone Marrow Biopsy
Radiation Therapy[View More]
Decreased Lung Capacity
IHC Blog Posts (1)
An Ode to Fellow Cancer Warriors & SurvivorsMarch 22nd, 2016
tonight, i sleep tight
liberated from self-pity
knowing that my story
isn’t mine alone.
there are others;
others who have been through
the same sufferings
the same epiphanies.
more or less?
it doesn’t matter.
comparison is an obsolete concept
in the world of survivors
to the exceptional beings
who appeared out of the blue
with open arms
bearing their stories
but uniquely their own:
by Frederick Ferrer-Miller
Depression almost pushing you to the edge too?February 5th, 2016
I've been feeling depressed lately, moreso than I did during my first year of fight with cancer. I've always been a naturally gleeful person, so before cancer hit me, I always thought that I would be depression-proof. Fighting cancer the second time around, after the stem cell transplant, proves to be more challenging...way more challenging. I'm not allowed to work or take the nursing licensure exam yet. I worked really hard to graduate from nursing school in a university all the while fighting this disease. I even graduated magna cum laude. With my previous graphic design and photography professional experience, I accept as much gigs that I can do in bed and around my symptoms to have some source of income, no matter how inadequate.
It's during this recovery period from my stem cell transplant that I first experienced having suicidal thoughts...probably caused by the combination of my many meds, hormone depletion after many radiations and stem cell transplant from my sister, and not being able to move on with making my ambitions (that I worked so very hard on in spite of medical challenges) finally happen.
Dreams Being Delayed by CancerJanuary 7th, 2016
One of the most difficult challenges that cancer has caused me is it has repeatedly put my dreams on hold without leaving me much choice. I was 28 years old when I decided to change my career to Registered Nursing. It had been a long process, especially for me. My illness and treatments has me lagged behind two cohorts of former classmates in pursuing our dreams of becoming full fledged nurses no matter how hard and persistently I worked. These, I realized, are what have been the cause of my lowest days.
I was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the summer of 2013 during my school break from nursing school at San Francisco State University. I had to take a year off to allow for several month-long inpatient chemotherapy treatments for a year. As soon as I was done with treatments and was considered on remission, I worked right away on going back to the university and picking up where I left off my studies to become a nurse.
The first semester I was back went really smoothly health-wise. The next, which was my last semester as well before graduating, had been shaky to say the least. Halfway through that final semester, I had my very first seizure while I was working in a hospital as part of my final training in nursing school. That's when the doctors found out that there were leukemia cells in my cerebrospinal fluid, even though I received many doses of prophylactic intrathecal chemotheraphy during my first year of treatments. I was then referred to another hospital for stem cell transplant, radiation, and more chemotherapy (both systemically and in the central nervous system). I had to work extra hard to finish my school requirements all the while I had to be in hospitals for more than a week or so, while experiencing side effects from the new intrathecal chemo I was receiving at the time, and to make time for several clinic appointments in preparation for my stem cell transplant. I also had to work with my new oncologist with scheduling so I could finally graduate from nursing school. Then in May, I finally graduated Magna Cum Laude! That was the highlight of my life in 2015.
Right after graduation, my classmates were rushing to take and pass the national nursing licensure exam, while I did not have any choice but to take it after my stem cell transplant. Most of them are full fledged nurses now working in hospitals while I am currently in a long recovery from the transplant. My oncologist advised me that the earliest I can take the licensure exam is in March of this year, and we haven't discussed yet when it would be safe for me to work as a nurse. These restrictions on my endeavors to finally have a rewarding professional career can oftentimes make me feel depressed. I also have a major dilemma of whether it would be best to leave off my long battle with cancer during my job interviews in the future as it would make me seem like a liability of an employee, while opening up about it could make seem more competent than my peers as my extensive experience as a cancer patient has truly taught me a lot of things about nursing. Things that my classmates and peers never had the chance to learn from nursing school alone. This experience has also made me more aware of patients' needs. I can speak through experience, not just from what I learned from books, what to expect during many different procedures and tests.
No matter how scary, painful, and challenging all my treatments and tests have been, nothing compares to the pain I feel about being left behind because of things I have no control over. I'm not the kind to usually resort to self-pity, but this illness and its treatments are strong enough that I feel an emotion that I've always avoided feeling: that life has been especially unfair to me. Has anyone else had the same experience and faced the same dilemma?