Infant leukemia survivor reflects on 'the hospital that raised me'
IVANA L. CAMARILLO
I've been a fighter since I was a baby. As a childhood cancer survivor, strength runs through my blood and every cell I have.
At 9 months old, I was diagnosed with infant leukemia. At 1, I received a cord blood transplant at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital. I finished all active treatments for my cancer when I was 5, and I have now been cancer-free for 10 years.
Undergoing childhood leukemia treatment
Being so small when I had to fight for my life, I have very few memories of my leukemia journey. I remember being isolated all the time, and I remember looking at my hands and seeing little pieces of my skin fall off, a cord blood transplant side effect.
I even remember starting school and realizing that everything I thought was normal was in fact not normal at all. Being bald was not normal. Having scars was not normal. Going to doctor's appointments every month was not normal.
Having a childhood like mine was not easy. I often felt isolated because I believed that people could not understand what it was like to go through cancer or what it meant to be a cancer survivor. I got bullied a lot for it. I understand now this was because of a lack of knowledge, but it still hurt a lot.
What I learned from my childhood leukemia journey
Now that I am older, I can see what my cancer journey has taught me. I learned what it felt like to be bullied, so I never bullied anyone. I learned what it was like to feel left out, so I tried to involve everyone I could. I learned that the world can be a cruel place but that little acts of kindness can help make it less cruel.
I stopped focusing on outward beauty and looked for inner beauty, the real beauty of a person. I like to say that cancer and MD Anderson has given me the wonderful opportunity to learn the true definition of beauty and how a horrible thing can bring forth light.
I now know that true friends don't judge your bald head or round face from steroids, they rejoice in them because they are signs of treatment and a possible cure. I also know the joy of belonging to a growing second family -- my cancer family, the patients, caregivers and care team I met during my cancer treatment. They are the people who walked this journey with me and who I now walk with as an experienced traveler to guide, help and support.
Leading the way for new cancer patients
One of the most important things I've done for my cancer family is participate in activities and groups at MD Anderson, such as imPACT, the teen advisory committee that works with Children's Cancer Hospital staff to improve the experience for other young patients facing childhood cancer.
Most people wonder why I do this and why I haven't just left cancer in my past. My answer is simple: I believe you should never forget where you came from. That doesn't only mean the place where you were born. It also is the place where your soul has learned its most valuable lessons. I have learned and continue to learn so much throughout my cancer journey that I never want to forget.
Though no one's sure who said it, here's one of my favorite quotes: "Life is only traveled once. Today's moment become tomorrow's memory. Make the best of every moment good or bad, because the gift of life is life itself."
I love this quote because it reminds me every day not to forget where I came from. My cancer experience, good and bad, is an important part of my life's gift, because there once was a point where we thought I would not get much life at all.
I may not have all my memories from cancer, but I have enough to understand the pain and suffering of the journey. For me, that is enough to want to help others on their journeys. In the end, it helps me as much as I hope to help them.