November 7, 2000

October 20, 2009

“No, I don’t want to die!” I yelled as I jumped off the hospital bed. I vividly remember that moment on November 7, 2000 that shook my entire life, leaving behind shattered pieces filled with sadness, pain, frustration, confusion, fear, and cancer. Questioning with tears in my eyes, “Why me?” “Am I a bad person?” “Am I going to die?”
It all began with an abdominal pain that wouldn’t heal for over four months, resulting in weight loss and decrease in appetite. Thus, my concerned mother took me to the Yakima Pediatrics Clinic where Dr. Harthcock ordered x-rays to be done on my chest and lungs. At first, he pointed out that it was most likely a pulmonary infection or pneumonia. However, just to be certain, I was going to be hospitalized, begin receiving antibiotics, and go through a series of tests.
Upon arriving at the in-patient room late in the afternoon, I noticed that there were no doctors in sight; rather, there were only nurses who came in to change the antibiotics. At the young age of nine, I was certainly not accustomed to the idea of intravenous therapy and having a hypodermic needle inserted in my veins as it is connected to a syringe filled with antibiotics. Unknowingly, this was merely the beginning of many more hospitalizations to come.
Finally, after long hours of waiting, I was anxious to find out when I would be able to go home. Quietly and with very little facial expressions, Dr. Simms entered the room, followed by a translator. With my mother on my left side and my father to my right, I sat waiting during one of the most silent moments of my life. Then, Dr. Simms took a seat directly in front of me and said, “I’ve seen the x-rays and have come to a diagnosis. What Ilse has is not pneumonia, but a tumor with cancer. The tumor is on the left side of her neck and liquid from the tumor has spread out, down her chest and reached her lower abdomen, involving her left pleural cavity and reaching her upper left side kidney, as easily seen in the x-rays.”
Engulfed with fear, I jumped off the bed and yelled, “No, I don’t want to die!”
Subsequently, my mother embraced me so tightly and said, “No mija todo va estar bien! No te va a pasar nada!”(No, darling everything is going to be fine. Nothing is going to happen to you!) On the other hand, my father, who was in shock, didn’t move or say anything. At that time, my brother was only four and was innocently unaware of what was happening. Similarly, my parents and I knew little about cancer, but surely we were aware of its danger and how it could even result in death.
That same night my mom and dad were overwhelmed with desperation as they watched me suffer from the pain, vomiting, and high fever. They were willing to do anything to cure me. They began packing and called a priest to come pray for me at Memorial Hospital before my departure to Children’s Hospital & Medical Center (CHMC). While the priest and my family gathered around me to pray, all I felt were pain, nausea, and fear, while at the same time I felt a cool rush sweep through my body. I can almost guarantee that it was God touching my soul and fighting the illness. Miraculously, after the priest left, my symptoms disappeared.
After bidding everyone farewell, I departed to CHMC at five in the morning on November 8, 2000. Traveling, I could feel that my family was frightened but we had a renewed sense of hope that everything would be just fine. Without delay after arriving, I was hospitalized in the oncology 3rd floor inpatient care unit. This was the day when I met Dr. Park and Dr. Siegel who were in charge of finding a treatment for my illness. They scheduled for a biopsy and for the placement of a hickman line which is placed under the skin to the jugular vein and chest wall for the administration of chemotherapy and the withdrawal of blood. It had to be cleaned with heparin every three days to prevent infection and blood clots and had to be covered with plastic and tape whenever I took a shower to prevent it from getting wet.
It was November 9, 2000 and I pondered while lying down on a surgical bed. Anesthetics flowed through my veins as I slowly began falling into a deep sleep, frightened that I might not wake up. The last things I remember were the worried faces of my parents. Throughout the operation, time flew quickly for me, but for my parents it was like standing in the middle of a desert for days without water. Inevitably, it would all be over. Afterwards, although I was in so much pain, all I could think of was how fortunate I was to wake up with my family by my side.
The day after my biopsy, Dr. Park and Dr. Siegel confirmed my diagnosis of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and informed us that I would be going through treatment which included chemotherapy. They described the side effects like hair loss, vomiting, pain, nausea, depression of the immune system, weight loss or gain, and infections. The treatment was so intense that it would be necessary for me to come live in Seattle at the Ronald McDonald House. My doctors predicted that my stay would be for over six months and with a 60% chance of survival.
I began my first dosage of chemotherapy on November 11, 2000. At first, it seemed as though the chemotherapy wasn’t doing much, but my evaluation exams on December 18, 2000 showed improvement, with the tumor being barely visible. Soon, however, the side effects of the chemotherapy became evident, and hair was everywhere. They were in my clothes and pillow and hair balls formed in the washer and dryer. Whenever, I stroked my hair with my hands, hair would simply fall off, leading to bald spots in my head, so my mom decided to shave the remaining off. Furthermore, I was nauseated, constipated, weak, and vomited constantly. There were times when I was too weak that I had to use a wheelchair, my dad would have to carry me to places, and my mom had to help me take a shower. At first I would get frustrated with my situation, the fact that I could not participate in normal activities who children my age took part in, and the personal need to wear wigs, hats, and bandanas to hide my baldness. Nevertheless, I learned to cope with my disabilities and I learned to ignore those who stared at me. Later on, I enjoyed not having to do my hair and showing off my bald shiny scalp. The days when I felt healthy were rare. I was constantly hospitalized because my blood counts were low. I fainted several times and it became essential for me to receive blood transfusions frequently due to the contractions of viruses and low blood counts. Whenever I had visitors in my room, they would have to wear gowns, masks, and gloves to protect me from viruses. I couldn’t eat ground grown foods, meat had to be thoroughly cooked, and I was required to wear a mask. Being attached to machines and feeling the chemotherapy and blood running through my hickman line merely became routine for me.
During the first phase of my chemotherapy, my dad could only join us twice a month since he had to work in Yakima. Once, as he was driving on the Snoqualmie pass from Seattle to Yakima, he got into a car accident wherein his car slid and turned several times. It was a true miracle that he had survived and sadly, I was unable to comfort him. After this accident, my mom and I begged him to come live with us. We didn’t want to risk his life and my brother’s again. He finally moved in with us, and found a job in Seattle. Afterwards in 2001, I experienced an earthquake in Seattle. All these events, including my cancer diagnosis, resulted in anxiety and depression. I was constantly frightened, unable to sleep or be alone as my mind continuously thought of malignant spirits appearing and harming me. Consequently, I had to get assistance from a psychologist. There was a point when I even had to take medication for my anxiety. Even so, throughout every moment of my life, I am thankful that my family has been inseparable.
As months passed, I continued treatment and my daily schedule included taking up to twenty pills per day and spending long ill nights in the hospital. On the bright side, I began enjoying Seattle and meeting people, specially those who were also fighting for their lives. Some of whom returned, winning the battle while others struggled, losing the fight. I had the opportunity to meet people of different cultures from all over the world, each with a different story to tell. The people we were living with and those at CHMC were extremely supportive. Those who were not cancer patients were always trying to make our stay joyful. One Christmas, they took us on a cruise, planned family activities, and provided food. Volunteers spent time with the patients, entertaining us so we could forget about our illness. The hospital even offered a tutor so I wouldn’t get behind in school work. Therefore, after returning home, I was fortunately able to continue with my education.
Finally, after almost a year of treatment, I would be returning home. Re-imaging and evaluation took place to assure that my condition was stable, and my hickman line was then removed. Surprisingly, mixed feelings of dread and happiness swept through me. Mainly because I was going to miss Seattle, the hospital, my friends, and fearful that it would be my last time seeing them. At the same time, I was thrilled to know that my complete remission was nearing even though I still had to continue my oral medications and chemotherapy in Yakima with Dr. Simms.
Even at the comfort of my own home, I was still forced to face many challenges, especially when I returned to school. Because my hair had not grown back, I had to wear hats and bandanas at school. I struggled, finding it difficult to constantly explain my situation; why I was bald, swollen from the chemotherapy, and why I had to wear face masks. I felt as if everyone stared at me, curious about my physical appearance. Fortunately, I was able to overcome my fears and learned to share my story with others, all of whom listened kind-heartedly.
Although I was still often sick from the chemotherapy, hospitalized from contracted viruses, and absent from school, I was able to finish elementary school and began middle school where I became involved in sports and school activities. The only difficulties were the long term side effects of the chemotherapy, including weakness in my body and having to receive physical therapy and assistance from a nutritionist.
I have been in remission and currently have yearly check-ups. Reminiscing, I realize that cancer has been both a challenge and a blessing. Even though one has to overcome the hardships in life, one has to have faith that things happen for the best. It is through my suffering that I learned the power of my family’s love and how no one should feel superior or inferior, for everyone is brought into this world with a unique purpose. It is my goal in life to become a pediatric oncologist and with a compassionate heart, be able to one day walk down the halls of a Children’s Hospital, help cure cancer patients, and help them not lose faith of one day being cancer free, so that they too can turn their dreams into reality.
Ilse Montes De Oca