How Multiple Myeloma Changed My Family

            Cancer is a word that surrounds us daily. We are constantly flooded with warnings that everything is potentially cancerous. News articles continuously tell us of a constant flood of daily products, foods, household appliances, and so much more that increase our risks of different types of cancer.  Studying biochemistry in college, I learned and studied cancer in great detail. Never did I imagine, however, that one day, it would be so intimately a part of my everyday life.

            During the spring of 2014, as a Junior at Seattle Pacific University, I was lucky enough to travel to Peru to learn more about the dental field and work with Peruvian dentists to serve rural communities. It was my first big trip, and I was more excited than I had ever been in a long time. The trip itself was incredible. I experienced a completely different culture, and yet, the places I explored seemed at once very familiar to me, conjuring up memories of my hometown in Mexico. Although I loved the trip, I was excited to come home. I could not wait to share my experiences with my family. More than anything, I could not wait to hug them.

IMG_2227.jpg

I remember coming home to the States hardly able to contain my joy to see my family, but instantly I realized something was different. I walked in and my mom’s friend was in the kitchen doing dishes, which seemed extremely odd; my mother would never let anyone do dishes or be in “her” kitchen. My mother was sitting on the couch, greeting me with the most beautiful smile, but I noticed she was also wearing a black back brace. Very odd.  I knelt in front of her and held her hands in mine. There was something really strange and deeply unsettling about seeing my mother sitting on the couch in her back brace, instead of walking around in her usual high heels. Despite what my brain was telling me, I managed to remain calm, hoping there was a reasonable explanation for the weirdness I was feeling.

My brother was in the living room, and he came over and hugged me. He told me in Spanish, “We have to be strong for Mom.” In that instant, I could no longer hold it together, and I started crying. We have all been in situations where we know we are about to receive bad news, and our minds immediately jump to the worst-case scenario. Most of the time, though, it never is as bad as it seems. My first thought was, “Mom has cancer.” At the same time, I was also hoping deep down, and had almost convinced myself, that whatever my brother was going to tell me was not as bad as cancer. My brother stuttered and said, “Mom has cancer.” In that moment, I could not do anything but sob uncontrollably. I felt the worst heartache I have ever experienced. My first thought was that my mom probably had breast cancer. I reasoned with myself, “It will be okay, based on what I know many women with breast cancer live for a very long time.” When I was finally able to choke some words out, I asked my brother what type of cancer she was diagnosed with. He told me she had “multiple myeloma.”  “Multiple what?!” I went back to hug my mom and just be with her in that moment. Although she was the one who had just been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, there she was holding me, loving me, and comforting me, like the incredibly strong and loving mother she is.

Today, I still remember that day as the worst day of my life. I went on to finish my Junior year of college. It was an extremely difficult year for me. I am very thankful, however, for my friends who made sure that I was okay at all times and kept me company. To this day, my closest friends continue to be one of my many sources of strength.

IMG_0054.jpg

Immediately, my mother began her aggressive treatment to attack the myeloma, which included radiation therapy and intense chemotherapy. We began the dreaded weekly visits to the oncology center in Vancouver, WA.

IMG_2221.jpg

The next couple of months after her diagnosis my mom and all of us were getting ready for the biggest day of our lives, her much anticipated bone marrow transplant. Luckily, she did not need a donor as her transplant was autologous, which means that her own stem cells would be cultivated and given right back to her. My mother is so strong; her own body saved herself and gave her another chance at life. After many rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and physical therapy, as well as unexpected hospital visits, the big day had arrived: March 27th, 2015. The bone marrow transplant occurred at the Oregon Health & Science University oncology center in Portland, Oregon. My sister had flown in from Mexico to be here with all of us. By now, it had been a whole year since her diagnosis, and I was now a senior in college getting ready to graduate.

           College graduation finally arrived. I became the first person in my immediate and extended family to graduate from an American university. This was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life, right? Although, I was extremely proud of myself, it was a bittersweet moment since my mother could not attend my graduation, as she was still recovering from her recent bone marrow transplant. My dad also could not be present as he was at home taking care of his beautiful wife. I knew that my parents were both cheering me on from Vancouver, WA, or as I like to call it “The ‘Couve”. My brother, his wife Adriana, and my uncle had traveled to Seattle to see me graduate. After the graduation ceremony I asked them to drive me to Vancouver so that I could be with my mother the same day of my college graduation. After the longest three hour car ride ever, I walked home with my cap and gown to share this moment with my parents. The recovery of her bone marrow transplant was very successful, but of course, came along with all side effects of a bone marrow transplant. The physical toll the transplant had taken on my mother did not shadow her inner strength and beauty. She is my biggest inspiration and daily I aspire to be like her.  

IMG_2228.jpg

Fast forward to this past spring 2018, and my family and I celebrated her third year of remission. My mother is one of the strongest women I have ever met. This past year has been even more exciting to see her physical strength slowly come back to her. This summer, she attended two weddings and left the house a little more for family dinners. She has even contemplated making a trip to Seattle with my dad to visit me, which is huge for her to say! I am currently working on my master’s degree and when I go home to visit, she will still make me tea to make sure that I am focused during my studies.

IMG_2226.jpg

I admit that it has been an extremely difficult journey for my family and I, but there was something about this ugly and life-threatening disease that unexpectedly brought us closer together as a family. Throughout this entire process, my family and I have received so much support from other family and friends, and even hospital staff. The oncology nurses at the hospital are some of my favorite people to this day, and the doctors that I have met have been wonderful. Slowly they have become an extended part of our families. For some time, I have been wanting to return the favor and help other families who are in a similar situation as me. It is a challenging and dreaded journey, but the support makes it a bearable experience.

Joining the LiveSymile Foundation was something that happened unexpectedly and quickly. I am a big believer that when the right opportunity arises, you have to reach out and take it. The LiveSymile Foundation was one of those right and perfect opportunities for me.

I met Hakan Gem, the founder of LiveSymile, in the winter of 2018, while he was a fourth-year dental student at UW and I was working at a community health center where Hakan was assigned to do one of his clinical rotations. When the rotation ended, we friended each other on social media. A few months after, I noticed a personal post about Hakan’s mother and I was immediately touched by his extraordinary story. I also learned that he was starting a foundation to support cancer patients and their families. I wanted to learn how I could get involved and do something to represent and honor the journey my mother has been on. Hakan and I agreed to meet to go over a few of the logistics of a non-profit and how to get started. At that meeting, we both shared our stories about how cancer had influenced our families. I had to fight hard to hold back the tears when listening to his story and while sharing my own experiences. We both were on the same page; we wanted to create something beautiful to honor our mothers, in the midst of unthinkable pain.  Never did I imagine that I would walk away from that meeting with an offer to jump on board as one of the co-founders. I slept on it, thinking about the opportunity for several days. I wanted to ensure that I was the right fit to support and bring to life the visions and the values of the LiveSmyle Foundation. After mulling it over seriously, I accepted to join LIveSmyle, and it has been the most exciting journey thus far. Hakan is a very motivated individual, and I am super excited to help bring his vision to life, while at the same time incorporating my own passion and infusing my own experience into LiveSmyle. I am beyond excited to be a part of such an amazing organization with Hakan, both of us inspired and driven to honor two amazing women who happen to be our mothers.