When Claudia Pichardo was a child, one of her many doctors told her she was a fighter, not a quitter.
“Ever since then, that’s been my motto,” she says. In fact, she’s relied on it throughout her life.
An acute lymphocytic leukemia diagnosis
Claudia’s cancer journey started at age four, when she was diagnosed with anemia, started bruising easily and began running a fever. Her mother took her to their local hospital, where a series of tests eventually brought the diagnosis: acute lymphocytic leukemia.
The doctors immediately referred the family to MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, where Claudia underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, along with several painful bone marrow biopsies and spinal taps. After four years of treatment, she went into remission.
Claudia’s acute lymphocytic leukemia recurrence
That was a short-lived break, though. Just two years later, at age 10, Claudia got what she thought was her first period. It lasted for more than two months. Scared and dreading the idea of going back to the hospital, she hid what was happening from her family.
When her mother finally found out, she brought Claudia back to MD Anderson, where they got more difficult news. “They sat my mom and me down and said that it was a tumor that was spreading all over my body and that they had to do emergency surgery. If I had come in sooner, they would have just treated it with radiation and chemotherapy.”
More radiation and surgery followed the surgery. This was perhaps the toughest time of Claudia’s treatment. She was, she admits, not the most cooperative patient. More than once she ran and hid when it was time for a bone marrow biopsy or spinal tap. “The only person who could find me was my mom,” she recalls.
Ingredients for survivors
Claudia got through those tough years of treatment, thanks to her determination to fight, along with a few other ingredients that she recommends for others:
- Faith: The most important, she says, is her faith, which gave and continues to give her the determination to fight cancer and live with its aftermath. “First and foremost, have faith in God,” she tells others. “He’s the one that’s going to give you the strength to fight it and just live it day by day.”
- Family: Parents, of course, also play a huge part in helping their children through diagnosis and treatment. While many parents may be frustrated and upset that they can’t make everything better for their children, just being there to love and support them is incredibly important, Claudia says. Supporting children, she notes, includes understanding how close young patients can get to people on their care team and helping them when that team changes. “You get so attached to the doctors and nurses,” she says. “There comes a time when they start to retire, and it’s difficult to come again when there’s a new doctor or nurse. But sometimes you just have to start a new chapter.”
- Therapy: Turn to the support programs provided by the hospital. Claudia herself saw a social work counselor as a child and was given breathing exercises to help her manage the stress of treatment. Her younger siblings also got support from a social work counselor to help them understand what was happening and why their mother spent so much time away from home during Claudia’s treatment.
Thanks to all this support, Claudia made it through three more years of treatment, finally going back into remission when she was 13.
Gratitude for life
Claudia is now 43 and cancer continues to have a profound impact on her life. First and foremost, the disease and its treatments have left her unable to have children. She’s also dealt with multiple cases of melanoma on her scalp, which were likely brought on by the radiation she received as a child. She’s also dealt with osteoporosis, dental issues, fibromyalgia, hypothyroid and obstructive sleep apnea.
Despite all this, however, she remains determined when it comes to cancer and its effects on her life.
“I am a fighter, not a quitter!” she says. “I always remember this. I’ve made it my goal that no matter what, I’ll never give up. I hope everyone struggling with cancer makes this their goal, too. Don’t give up. Fight it.”
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