June is Cancer Survivors Month,
Read Anthony’s Story!
In May of 2017, at 16 years old Anthony was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. His story below started while he was already getting treated for leukemia.
I never really thought much of the lump on my neck. I noticed it while on a weekend vacation in Miami and figured that people get swollen lymph nodes all the time for all kinds of reasons. Unfortunately, the potential for the lymph node to be cancerous did not escape my mind. I had been in treatment for Leukemia for about two-and-a-half years up until that point and after that diagnosis, I had learned that anything is possible. Over the next 5 months, the lymph node would swell to the size of a tennis ball. CT scans and ultrasounds did not signal anything suspicious, but the fact that the lymph node was not decreasing in size and the presence of a second swollen lymph node on the inside of my right leg prompted the providers in charge of my care to go in and get a biopsy. We would know if it was a bacterial infection causing the swelling within about 48 hours. After 48 hours, no bacteria had grown in the cultures. On March 12th, 2020, my family and I learned that I had cancer for the second time.
This second diagnosis was for Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma, a type of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma is not uncommon, but my situation was unique as this second diagnosis was unrelated to my original diagnosis, was only 3 years after my initial diagnosis, and occurred while I was still receiving chemotherapy. Because of these factors, the development of my treatment plan involved some extra research and communication with other pediatric oncologists. The treatment plan for my Leukemia diagnosis was pretty standard with a tried-and-true protocol. The treatment plan for my second diagnosis took my providers about two weeks to develop. The plan was for five cycles of chemotherapy to get my Lymphoma into remission followed by a bone marrow transplant. At that point, my knowledge of bone marrow transplants was simply: “the thing that they do on the other side of Hem/Onc floor at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, not involving me”. My family and I had to learn and come to grips with what that “thing” was and how it involved me.
The treatment of my Lymphoma went almost exactly as planned and before we knew it, my care was being handed over to the Bone Marrow Transplant Team and I was beginning to prepare for my transplant. I quickly learned that, despite my three years of experience with the world of Hem/Onc, the bone marrow transplant world was something totally different. Instead of cycles of chemotherapy to reach remission, my transplant involved a “conditioning regimen” of radiation and 4 doses of chemotherapy in what was like one big cycle. That “one big cycle” kicked my butt. After the conditioning regimen was completed, I received my Mom’s bone marrow stem cells and waited as I developed a whole new immune system. I never thought my mom and I could get any closer, but we were certainly wrong. After about thirty days of being inpatient, I was able to eat and drink regularly as well as produce blood cells without the help of transfusions. The shower I took when I got home was the best feeling shower of my life. It will have been one year since my transplant this coming July and I am extremely fortunate that my recovery has turned out the way it has.
I learned a lot from my first bout with cancer. I learned how cancer is never convenient. Cancer does not wait for a good time to rear its ugly head. I also learned that cancer does not discriminate whom it affects. It affects people and families of all ages and at all different places in life. With my second diagnosis, I learned some new things and saw some new things I did not see the first time. Especially with my transplant and being inpatient for thirty days, I realized how important positivity can be and the power of a strong mindset. Being mentally tough goes a long way, even though it can be incredibly difficult at times. Staying hopeful and envisioning the finish line is what kept me going. Even though I was bald, was taking a handful of medications every twelve hours, barely had enough energy to stand, and had not eaten for nearly three weeks, I kept reminding myself that I was one day closer to the finish line and stronger than I was the day before. I also clearly understood the fact that a lot of people have it worse than I did. I have always considered myself lucky as I knew and saw for my own eyes how much worse it could have been for me. I am extremely grateful to be where I am today. And after accepting and pushing through all of the adversity I faced, I am where I am today. It also helps that, being the Tampa Bay sports fan that I am (or should I say “Champa Bay sports fan?”), I got to watch the Bucs, Rays, and Lightning do a whole lot of winning while I recovered.
Today, I am approaching my first “rebirthday” on July 6th as I have heard the anniversary of a bone marrow transplant referred to. I am pursuing my dream career of one day becoming a pediatric oncologist to help children like me and families like mine. I would not feel this way if not for the amazing nurses, doctors, providers, social workers, and all of the other incredible people who have shown me the monumental impact that can be made by the people within the medical world on a patient and their family. I cannot thank enough the people at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital for helping me through the long and difficult journey my family and I have been on. I also would not be where I am today without the tremendous support system that I have. From my family members, friends both new and old, and the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, they have all carried me with their love and caring hearts. Most of all I have to thank my parents for being my best friends and the best parents I could ask for. Later this year, I will continue my path of becoming a pediatric oncologist by embarking on my second year at the University of Florida. And while I know the road to becoming a pediatric oncologist is long, I know that I can get there and achieve my dreams. If I can fight through what I have already been through, I know that I can do anything.