A lot can happen over three days. Three days, that’s all it took. I’ve been here in Houston for those three days and it’s been a whirlwind of news, change, and emotions. I knew it was going to be a bit overwhelming but it’s turned out to be more of a game-changer than anything. I could never have predicted what has transpired over the last 72 hours.
When I left my hometown of Corpus Christi three days ago, I was a month out of my tenth round of intense chemotherapy. I was heading back to MD Anderson in Houston to see if I was in remission yet to be able to receive my stem cell transplant. My one and only sibling, my little sister Carolina, had been tested to see if she was my perfect match for the transplant. I’d been told that she is not my match and they would have to begin the search for a donor through the national bone marrow registry. I received the call on a Friday while I was driving and I barely made it home. I was crying so hard I had to hang on to the back of my dining room chair to try to catch my breath and to keep from crumpling to the floor. Both my sister and I had been so hopeful that she’d be my match, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the news myself. My husband had to call her and give her the news through tears and heartbreak. The three of us were heartbroken yet again.
Despite the setback, I set off for Houston with my parents this time with positivity and no tears. I didn’t cry when I told my friends and family goodbye, when I hugged my dogs, or even when I waved to my husband as I slowly backed my car out of the driveway. I left in complete peace, in stark distinction to the last time I’d left for Houston.
Upon arrival, Monday was more of a ho-hum day at MD Anderson what with the usual tests done to check if I was in remission. I spent all day there with blood work first thing at eight in the morning, then a PET scan, and finally a CT scan. My parents and I left the hospital at 5pm tired and hungry yet hopeful for good news the next day.
I should have just stayed in bed on Tuesday morning. Our first stop was with my lymphoma doctor for the much anticipated results. I’ll call him Dr. L for lymphoma. And for privacy reasons, duh. Dr. L walked into the exam room and got right to the point. Bad news: I was not in remission. He explained that although the tumor in my chest was still there, it hadn’t grown. It hadn’t shrunk either. That was monkey wrench #1. Monkey wrench #2?: I now needed radiation and lots of it. They were changing treatment since the cancer hadn’t responded to chemotherapy. I’d been hoping I would be done with all this cancer junk at least by Christmas this year but with 4 weeks of radiation being thrown in before the transplant, that was no longer going to happen. This monkey wrench is gonna have me spending my Christmas in a hospital room this year.
I now have a 3rd doctor to add to my roster at MD Anderson: my radiation doctor. Let’s call her Dr. R for radiation. I think you’re getting the picture now with the doctor aliases. I was sent down to see her immediately after my visit with Dr. L. She’s very beautiful and very pregnant. I instantly liked her. Although I’m not looking forward to radiation in the least, I’m happy to have her as my doctor for this very scary part of my treatment. She greeted my parents and I warmly and she calmly explained everything that was about to happen to me over the next few weeks. They would work to shrink the tumor with radiation in order for me to have my stem cell transplant. Dr. R showed me the pictures from the PET scan the day before and I was able to view the tumor in my chest for the first time ever. It was eye-opening to say the least. I had been pointing to the wrong spot on my chest this whole time when people asked me where the tumor was. What a colossal dummy.
Dr. R went down the list of the possible short-term and long-term effects and described everything down to the last detail. Skin redness and increased risk of heart problems and breast cancer are just a few of the lovelier side effects. She let me know that I’ll be having radiation there with her for the next 4-5 weeks, Monday through Friday, and that I’ll be able to go home on the weekends. That sounded like a good thing in the grand scheme of it all. But wait, here comes the REALLY good part. I predict you will say to yourself, “WHAT?!” Then, I will say I told you so in just a little bit. Go on, keep reading.
I left MD Anderson with my parents feeling good despite the news I’d just received because I felt like all my questions and concerns had been addressed. I knew what to expect. I left in anticipation on my way to a local Houston television news station for an interview. I’d been contacted by them a couple of weeks before my visit that they’d picked up my story and wanted to help me in my new passion of promoting awareness among Hispanics about the importance of registering on the national bone marrow registry. They were excited and so was I.
I arrived at the station and as I sat in my car powdering my nose and touching up my non-existent eyebrows, my cell phone rang. Here comes monkey wrench #3. I should have known something was up when I saw it was from MD Anderson. I didn’t think anything of it as they were supposed to call me that afternoon about my future radiation appointments. Wrong. It was Dr. L’s physician’s assistant. “Cristina?” (Because I’m now on a first name basis with everyone at MDA.) “Yeah bud, what’s up?” I asked. “Um, are you still here at MDA?” This was getting weird fast. “No, I’m at a news station for an interview. Why?” I replied. “We looked at your CT again from yesterday,” UH OH, “and we found a blood clot in your lung.” Say what?! I told you so. Wait it gets better. “How long do you think you’ll be at your interview because we need you to come back to MDA for medication. Do you know how to self-inject?” WHAT?! Heck no, I don’t know how to self-inject! He proceeded to tell me that I would have to self-inject a blood thinner every day for the next SIX months. I could not believe my ears. My mouth dropped open and a fly could have made his home in there without me noticing.
“Wait a minute. Friend, did you just say SIX months? You’re joking right?” I pleaded. “I’m sorry but yes it’s for six months,” he replied. Here I was nervous already for my impending interview in the next 30 minutes and another bomb had been dropped right on my head. I didn’t have time to process it. I had to gather my thoughts and get my head together for this interview. I had to put on my big girl pants. The bone marrow registry needed my attention more at that moment than my own health problems. I think God planned it perfectly this way. It made me see that there is always something bigger and more important than myself. I had to be the best that I could be in that moment and be able to articulate the message I so needed Houston’s Hispanic community to hear.
I walked into the news studio, took my hat off, and proceeded to do the interview cue-ball bald. I felt liberated and the words flowed as if God was right there in my ear, whispering them to me. Before I knew it, it was over and I quickly said my thank-you’s and goodbye’s. I had to get back to my own reality, after all. With my medication in hand, Tuesday was finally over. Little did I know what Wednesday would bring.
Wednesday. Today. Today had another monkey wrench in store for me. What number were we on? Oh yeah, number 4. I had an appointment today with my stem cell transplant doctor, Dr. S (S for stem cell, you got it). At this point, we all knew my sister was not a match but here comes the clincher: Dr. S said that they had done a search on the national bone marrow registry but no match was found for me. Wow, another punch in the stomach. He explained that my genetic make-up is very ‘unique’ and it’s going to be difficult to find a match. I mean, I always knew I was weird but now it was being genetically confirmed. Dr. S turned to my parents and informed them that if a match was not found by the time I needed it, we would have to settle for a half-match, i.e. one of my parents. If it turns out this way, one of my parents will have to give me bone marrow instead of stem cells–a more involved process.
By the time we all knew it, we’d been sent down to the lab for both of my parents to have their blood drawn for HLA typing. Results won’t come in for at least another seven business days so we’re bracing ourselves for a long week.
Three days was all it took. Three days for a total game-changer but I’m putting on my game-face. Game on.
For more information on becoming a bone marrow or stem cell donor, visit www.bethematch.org. Be a hero. Save a life. Be the match.