As a two-time survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, David Olazaba has already beaten the odds in some ways. Now, the teen is making history through a partnership between MD Anderson, NASA and ILC Dover, a manufacturer of spacesuits.
David is one of hundreds of young people who participates in the MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital Arts in Medicine program, which helps pediatric patients feel better mentally, physically and spiritually as they go through cancer treatment.
Its most recent endeavor is the design of three spacesuits: a replica spacesuit adorned with hand-painted art “patches,” a real flight suit decorated with special colorful markers, and a third suit still under development, which will involve children from other hospitals around the world.
“I feel like one of the luckiest people,” says David, who worked on the first two suits. “You don’t get an opportunity like this every day.”
Art to the rescue
David first became involved with the Arts in Medicine program in 2010. He worked on its inaugural project, the Tree of Life sculpture.
“It’s fun to do, makes the day go by much faster, and gets your mind off the pain and the stresses of life in general,” he says.
The then-12-year-old had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009, after experiencing terrible pain in his hip. “It felt like knives,” David says. “But my pediatrician said they were just growing pains.”
David and his mother knew it was something more than that when he began to lose weight and run frequent fevers. After an MRI revealed a large mass in David’s right hip, he was referred to MD Anderson. Here, he met Cesar Nunez, M.D., and began chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have a good understanding of what cancer was,” David says. “I lost my hair and had some nausea, but mostly I felt normal.”
The treatments David received put his cancer in remission for the next five years. But he returned to MD Anderson last November after a follow-up CT scan revealed a mass in the right side of his neck. The lymphoma was back.
David admits he was disappointed by the recurrence, but he drew comfort from his previous experience at MD Anderson – and with the Arts in Medicine program.
“Everything is a little easier now,” says David, who is 18 and making plans for college. “I know what to expect.”
The one bright spot of his cancer’s return has been the chance to work on the spacesuits, which David describes as his favorite project so far. “This is the first spacesuit that’s actually art, so that’s making history right there,” David says. “And it’s going to be around for a while. So, one day, I can tell other people, ‘Hey, my art is on there.’”