Saturday, May 31, 2014, was a big day for Harrison Bowe and for everyone around him, but one couldn’t tell it from the 19-year-old’s laid back demeanor. Sitting in his patient room in Houston Methodist Hospital, Bowe didn’t show any outward signs of excitement that he would soon become the very first graduate from the Class of 2014 at Bellaire High School. “It’s gonna be a great day,” he coolly observed.
Bowe was still recovering from a serious complication from a rare birth defect, and from bladder surgery that surely saved his life. He was born without a functioning bladder, so from the first weeks of his life, Bowe underwent a series of operations to construct one out of his own intestines. He’s managed his condition throughout his life, working his way toward graduation from high school.
But in early May, his bladder ruptured unexpectedly and Bowe quickly developed a dangerous infection and acute renal failure. At Houston Methodist Hospital, Dr. Lee Morris performed an emergency bladder surgery. “Harrison came through it very well,” Morris observed. “Once he gets rid of any lingering infection, he should be right back on track.”
So Saturday was graduation day, but since Harrison was still recuperating, officials from Bellaire High School and the Houston Independent School District brought the graduation to him. The graduate wore a cap and gown and was wheeled to a conference room at Houston Methodist Hospital, where friends and family gathered for the one-man graduation ceremony.
Nurses caring for Harrison decorated his patient room and door with congratulations, and everyone signed a poster on a bulletin board on the nursing unit. Mike McDonough, Bellaire principal, walked in with a red cap and gown for the ceremony.
McDonough praised Harrison’s determination in making sure he was going to graduate even while he was still in intensive care. “He was still hooked up to a ventilator, but Harrison was still trying to figure out how he could graduate,” McDonough said.
Quoting from Baz Luhrmann’s song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” the principal reeled off some profound advice: “Enjoy your body, use it every way you can/Don’t be afraid of it or what other people think of it/It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.”
Then, with diploma in hand, Harrison thanked his supporters and caregivers and tossed his graduation cap into the air.
For a woman living a healthy lifestyle, Alma Delia Sanchez, a resident of Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico, was shocked to discover a lump on her breast was later diagnosed as triple negative breast cancer. With little information on breast cancer for young women in Mexico, Sanchez immediately took to the internet. She and her husband found Dr. Angel Rodriguez, a breast medical oncologist who specializes in triple negative at Houston Methodist Hospital.
“Love heals; surround yourself with people who love you or can give you lots of love, support and empathy during your journey,” Sanchez said. “Live fearlessly; fear is one of the lowest vibrations we can have.”
I spoke with Sanchez about her journey, inspiration and ways to motivate yourself when battling with cancer.
Q. Before being diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, had you ever heard of this type of cancer?
No, I had never heard of triple negative breast cancer before. My cousin passed away from triple negative but it was never mentioned the type of breast cancer, only that it was a very aggressive type. Living in Mexico, there are many campaigns that promote self-breast exams, specifically in October. However, these campaigns are usually targeted at women over the age of 40 and the words triple negative are never mentioned. Triple negative does not depend on estrogen, progesterone or the HER2 to fuel it and grow.
Q. The word cancer can be daunting. How did you cope when you heard the news?
I first heard the news with my husband and my initial reaction was this could not be true. I told my husband the results had to be wrong. When the doctor explained my diagnosis in detail it all started to sink in. I was shocked that at my age and with my healthy lifestyle, I had cancer. I was able to find a great breast oncologist, surgeon and plastic surgeon in Houston that I felt safe and in great hands.
Q. Living such a healthy lifestyle, did you ever imagine being diagnosed with breast cancer?
No, even though there is a history of breast and ovarian cancer on my mother’s side of the family, I thought my great habits would save me. I have been a vegetarian since middle school and have exercised all my life, alternating between weight training, swimming and yoga. I have never smoked and very rarely have consumed alcohol. I always assumed my healthy habits would be my passport to good health and a long, happy life.
Q. Once you learned a little more about triple negative, what went through your head?
I was very scared at first. I googled triple negative breast cancer and everything that came up mentioned the words “really aggressive,” “deadly type of breast cancer,” “metastasis” and “doctors don’t know what fuels the cancer.” Sitting in front of my laptop crying, I couldn’t help but think about how much life I had left to live and how my baby girl still needed me.
Q. Walk us through your journey once being diagnosed.
Five days after my lumpectomy of what my doctor thought was a benign cyst, I received the lab results that said it was cancer. A week after hearing the news my husband and I flew to Houston in search for Dr. Angel Rodriguez. After visiting with the surgical oncologist, the recommendation was for me to get a double mastectomy.
There were some problems with the insurance company and I decided to undergo a left nipple sparing mastectomy with immediate reconstruction with a tissue expander. My diagnosis after the mastectomy was stage 2A, high grade, triple negative breast cancer with no lymph node involvement. I decided to return home to Mexico to start chemotherapy following the exact treatment that was suggested at Houston Methodist.
My hair started to fall out and I turned into this bald and chubby person that I just could not recognize in the mirror. I knew my life was at stake, but I asked why me? The first chemotherapy treatments were very hard. I had a dream one night. God said love could heal all and me. I am certain now that in our darkest moments we are never alone.
After completing my eight rounds of chemo, I was able to undergo surgery and the reconstruction. While it seems like I am about to finish my journey, it feels more like a new beginning.
Q. What would you say to women today who have recently been diagnosed or going through treatment?
The first thing I would say to someone who was recently diagnosed, get in touch with your emotions. Take time to feel sad, get angry and cry.
Once getting over the initial shock, surround yourself with loving and positive people. Be kind to yourself. If they are currently undergoing treatment, I know it is not a walk in the park. Rest and try to meditate as often as you can. Write about your experience, share your journey, talk to other breast cancer patients and know this too shall pass. Make it a mission to make it a healing journey for the body and soul. Get informed about the options you have for treatment. Choose a team of physicians you trust and form a relationship with them.
Finally, whatever path you choose, feel at peace with that decision.
Sanchez continues to reach out to the cancer patient community to motivate and inspire to be brave, help others understand that suffering is not necessary to grow and help women realize life is so beautiful that it is all worth it.
Every year, more than 12,000 patients in the United States are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma for which a marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant from an unrelated donor may be their best or only hope of a cure.
Chen Gong is one of them. A year ago, she was working well over 40 hours a week at an oil and gas manufacturing company doing paperwork in the supply chain department. During her free time, Chen would hang out with friends or go shopping with her mom. These days, she’s still spending a lot of time with her mom – but from a hospital bed at Houston Methodist Hospital, desperately waiting for one unknown person to give her a life-saving bone marrow donation.
Dr. Swaminathan Iyer, hematologist at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, says a staggering 70 percent of patients in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. They depend on an unrelated bone marrow donor or umbilical cord blood unit.
In the Asian community, more than 720,000 potential donors exist, but that’s only 7 percent of the entire bone marrow donor registry. The numbers aren’t much better for African-Americans or Hispanics, and they’re even more dismal if you’re of mixed race.
Chen, a 26-year-old native of Shanghai, China hates the thought of others seeing her sick but at the same time, she needs to find a donor who might help rid her body of recurrent acute myeloid leukemia. Chen was diagnosed in the summer of 2013 after she noticed red spots appearing on her legs. After her initial treatment seemed to work, Chen’s leukemia relapsed this March. She recently finished a round of chemotherapy and now she’s waiting to see if her blood count goes up.
Waiting is the hardest part. I sleep a lot because there isn’t much else to do, and it’s like I have to feel worse before I can get better. I still have a lot I want to do. I want to get married and have a family.
No one in Chen’s immediate family is a full match, which is the ideal candidate who would provide a perfect genetic match. Chen’s dad is a half match, but her medical team at Houston Methodist Cancer Center want to hold off, as her immune system might reject the marrow.
Chen and her Houston Methodist physicians, including oncologist Daniel Lehane, M.D., are hoping that more people, especially minorities, between the ages of 18 and 44 will join the registry. If you’ve thought about joining but haven’t made the decision yet, Dr. Iyer wants people to understand the following:
It’s a simple cheek swab. You don’t actually donate until you are a match for a patient
You don’t have to be the same blood type, but there are 10 markers in your DNA that have to match the recipient
Bone marrow donations are not painful. Donors are typically under general anesthesia during the withdrawal of liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone. Donors go home the same day and are back to their usual routines within a few days with only a small amount of discomfort.
The 2013-14 flu epidemic reached alarming levels in Houston. Because of the damage the H1N1 flu inflicts on the lungs, many patients were placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a lifesaving technique that oxygenates the blood outside of the body. Most ECMO patients are sedated to give their lungs time to heal. That’s why I was so surprised when I walked into Crystal Johnson’s room in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU) at Houston Methodist Hospital – she was awake and watching TV.
Crystal was 21 when we met in early January 2013. When she was 14, Crystal had received chemotherapy that would cause severe damage to her lungs to treat a cancerous tumor on her liver. After Crystal and her mother, Tracy, moved from Opelousas, Louisiana, to Houston in 2012, Crystal’s lungs began to decline and she dealt with a series of collapsed lungs. Crystal didn’t get a flu shot, so she had no immunity to the virus when she was around family members recovering from the flu. Upon her return to Houston, Crystal tested positive for H1N1 and was admitted to Houston Methodist Hospital.
Since Crystal was still testing positive for H1N1 at my first visit, I stopped at the doorway to gear up – a plastic gown, mask and gloves. I can still remember her labored breathing, SpongeBob blanket, and half-finished Duck Dynasty puzzle. I met Cindy, a CVICU nurse, who had become so attached to Crystal that they texted – even when Cindy was off duty. While Crystal’s body was receiving enough oxygen via ECMO, her lungs still labored to breath, so it was hard for her to talk. That first day, she mostly listened while Tracy and Cindy told me her story.
On my way home from work that night, I cried. I cried because I was so incredibly blessed, while this amazing young lady spent every moment fighting to breathe and live. My problems didn’t seem so big anymore.
After several weeks in the hospital, Crystal finally tested negative for H1N1, but the damage was done. She was immediately placed on the lung transplant list as one of the most severe cases in the nation. One day, I stopped by for a visit and Tracy told me a transplant coordinator had called early that morning with the news that Crystal might have donor lungs. I spent the day waiting with them for news. Crystal was nervous that she wasn’t going to get lungs that day. We reassured her that lungs were coming – the doctors were checking to make sure the lungs were just right for her.
Then, it was time. Cindy gave Crystal a hug and a kiss on the forehead. Tracy shed a few tears. In the moment Crystal knew she was getting lungs, she was peaceful.
All of Tracy’s family was in Louisiana, and I couldn’t leave her alone. So, after a long day of waiting for news, Tracy was called back to see the doctor. The doctor said the surgery had gone well and that Crystal was going to be fine.
After surgery, Crystal returned to the CVICU for monitoring as she adapted to her new lungs. I continued to stop by with the latest issue of a celebrity news magazine or to chat about the latest episode of Duck Dynasty and the crazy antics of Crystal’s favorite Robertson – Uncle Si. It was during a conversation about Skittles that it struck me – we were actually talking. Until then, our conversations consisted of me asking questions and Crystal writing answers or Cindy translating for me.
That was the last time I saw Crystal in the hospital. When I went back to the CVICU for a visit, they told me Crystal had gone home. Now that she isn’t fighting to breathe, Crystal finally has a chance to live her life.