The start of January 2014 was filled with excitement. I was undergoing fertility treatments to have a second child and was living my professional dream. I was a network news anchor and medical news reporter for a national broadcast network. Although I was exhausted from my grueling early morning schedule of waking up at 2:00 AM to nurse my nearly 2-year-old son, Gabriel, and getting ready to be on set at 4:00 AM, I was looking forward to having another child and expanding our family. But that hope ended abruptly on the day I was scheduled to have in vitro fertilization. My reproductive endocrinologist decided to perform a precautionary blood test before the procedure. The next day, he came to my house in tears with the news the test result showed I likely had leukemia. I was 41 years old.
Over the next couple of months, I saw two oncologists who disputed my fertility doctor’s diagnosis and declared me healthy—just tired from my busy life—and cancer-free. Thinking I could now proceed with my in vitro fertilization, the plans were stalled once again when my fertility physician, so sure that I, in fact, did have cancer, insisted he would not go through with the embryo transfer until I had a bone marrow biopsy. A few days later, I got the news that left me stunned. I had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a disease that at the time had a dismal survival rate of 25%.
Relying on my skills as a reporter, I quickly went into research mode to find experts in the field specializing in AML. My search took me to Mark Levis, MD, PhD, at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore. It is not hyperbole to say Dr. Levis and his team saved my life.
More devastating than learning I had a life-threatening cancer was being told once I got to the cancer center that the multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation needed to put the leukemia into remission could take up to a year to complete. That meant I would have to be away from my son for nearly a year, and that’s if I survived.
Coping With the Trauma of Cancer
The treatment was difficult and left me neutropenic and often too exhausted to get out of my hospital bed. What got me through those tough days were the 2-week breaks between chemotherapy cycles, when I could regain enough of my strength and white blood cell count for brief in-hospital visits with Gabriel and my husband, Cesar. But as devastating as it was for me to see Gabriel only for a few days before the next cycle of treatment began, the separation was having an even greater psychological impact on my son. I remember the first time Gabriel visited me at the cancer center; he walked past me as if we had never met. I was devastated.
To this day, every time I leave the house, he worries I won’t be coming back. Therapy is helping, but he is so consumed with fear and anxiety, at the age of 9, that he still sleeps in my bed.
Facing Multiple Cancers
Finally, in October 2014, I had the last of my chemotherapy treatments and went home. But my elation was short-lived. The results of a follow-up bone marrow biopsy detected malignant cells. The chemotherapy and radiation therapy had failed to put me in remission. Now, my only hope was an allogeneic stem cell transplantation. My older sister was a donor cell match, and in late October I underwent the procedure. I stayed at a residential facility on the Johns Hopkins campus, which meant being away from my family for another 100 days. By December, I was declared cancer-free and went home.
Although I remained cancer-free over the next 5 years, I was plagued by multiple infections, including a terrible bout of shingles, but I pushed ahead on raising Gabriel and launching ArmorUp for LIFE® (www.armorupforlife.org), a nonprofit patient advocacy organization to amplify the patient voice, help underserved communities, and inspire other survivors. Then, on the day I was celebrating my 5-year anniversary of being cancer-free, I got the call that a suspicious lesion in my right breast was found during a routine mammogram; it was HER2-negative, estrogen receptor–positive, progesterone receptor–positive breast cancer.
Even though both the medical oncologist and radiation oncologist assured me the tumor was small and contained, and the only treatment I would need was a lumpectomy, I felt uncomfortable with that recommendation and sought a third opinion from Dr. Levis. After all, he had saved my life once before.
Certain that the breast cancer was the result of multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the AML, and that there was likely more cancer hiding in the breast tissue, he advised me to have a prophylactic contralateral mastectomy. He was right. A pathology examination of my breasts found additional malignant lesions in both breasts.
Today, I remain cancer-free but am contending with other serious health conditions. I’ve inherited the clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential mutation from my sister’s donor stem cells; I now have all her heart issues, and I’ve added a cardio-oncologist to my growing medical team. I also have chronic inflammation from the transplant, which puts me at an increased risk for a cancer recurrence and the development of a new one.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I now fear death all the time, and I suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety. What gives me some sense of control over my fear is to stay vigilant about my health. Dr. Levis once told me that the decisions we make every day regarding the food we eat, the amount of stress we allow into our lives, our level of exercise, and our spiritual and financial foundation prepare us for how well we can cope when faced with a health crisis, and I live by that dictum. It’s what I now call “pre-rehabilitation.”
After I recovered from AML and its treatment, I was left without a job and so deeply in financial debt, we almost lost our house and had to launch a GoFundMe page to remain solvent. What keeps me moving forward, despite my fear and anxiety, is my determination to raise my son, advocate for other cancer survivors facing similar challenges, and work with the oncology community to support a whole-patient approach to care to improve patients’ experience and outcomes.
Cancer changes your perspective on life. There are losses and gains. For me, it’s finding gratitude in all things. Just taking another breath and having another day on this Earth is a great day.
Ms. Hernandez-Aldama lives in Atlanta. She is the author of Becoming the Story: The Power of PREhab (Café con Leche, 2021).
Editor’s Note: Patient’s Corner columns are based on information received from patients and should be considered anecdotal.