Apr 182004
 
Authors: Kyle Endres

For most people, one in three means little more than a

fraction.

For David Hernandez, it means his life.

“I mean, they tell me I have a one in three chance, I tell them

I have a three in three chance,” said Hernandez, 20, who travels to

New York City today to find out whether he will live to turn

21.

He has had cancer for the past six months, and he’s taking the

chance that an expensive stem cell transplant – also called a bone

marrow transplant – in Manhattan will cure him.

There’s a problem, though: The surgery only has a one-in-three

success rate.

But his doctors told him it is basically his only option, said

Hernandez, a CSU sophomore sociology major.

He sat at a round table near the window in the oncology

department of Poudre Valley Hospital. Hernandez jokingly called the

table his “office,” but all it had on it was a box of Kleenex. He

was dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, and he had an IV

machine that he rolled around with him everywhere he went.

“They told me that their success rate with the bone marrow

transplant is only one in three, which means, they said, that if

it’s not successful that I’d be diagnosed terminal.”

Doctors originally diagnosed Hernandez with testicular cancer in

early November 2003. This came after he noticed a lump in his chest

one night in early August. He also developed a buildup in one of

his testicles.

Hernandez and his parents, who later joined him at the hospital

table, all stressed the importance of early detection in preventing

cancer. In Hernandez’s case, if he had gone to the doctor sooner,

he might not have to undergo the transplant.

“Anything that you notice unusual, don’t hesitate to go see a

doctor and ask about it,” said Dorothy Hernandez, David’s

mother.

He scheduled an ultrasound to find out what was happening to his

body and he was told he might have a cancerous tumor.

A CT scan confirmed that he had cancer throughout his body.

Cancer cells are measured by tumor markers, which assess the

amount of protein a cancer has produced and signify how developed a

cancer is at a certain point.

When David was diagnosed, his tumor markers were at 2 million.

After four cycles of chemotherapy, they were down to 28. People

without cancer have zero tumor markers.

The Collegian reported in mid-February that Hernandez had

undergone four cycles of chemo and was waiting to go to New York to

see specialists who might be able to help him further.

This was under the recommendation of his Colorado doctor, who

suggested he get a second opinion at Memorial Sloan-Kettering

Cancer Center in Manhattan, one of the nation’s top cancer

treatment hospitals.

The doctors there told him they were not sure what the cancer

was going to do next.

“Pretty much I had my cancer on the ropes and they weren’t sure

if it was going to go down or if it was going to come back

swinging,” Hernandez said.

The New York doctors told him to do a weekly blood test to keep

an eye on the cancer. After about a month of this, he received a

call during a class in the Clark Building. It was his doctor

telling him his tumor marker count had skyrocketed.

“So I picked up, I left the class in tears, went and checked

into the hospital, just because I knew I needed more chemotherapy,”

he said.

A New York state of mind

The doctors put Hernandez on a more aggressive chemotherapy

regiment, one that caused nausea, vomiting and even hallucinations.

Then they let him out and told him to come back in 14 days for

another round of chemo.

Since the cancer had not disappeared, his doctors decided he

should consider a bone marrow transplant. This involves doctors

killing off his bone marrow through chemotherapy and then giving

him new marrow to help his body “rebuild itself anew, hopefully,”

Hernandez said.

Usually this procedure requires a bone marrow donor, but in this

case Hernandez will be donating his own marrow beforehand.

“They drill into your spinal cord and then use a needle to suck

out your bone marrow. One of the most painful things you can have

done to you, guaranteed,” he said.

Before he decided to go to New York, Hernandez met with a bone

marrow team from Sloan-Kettering and decided that was where he

wanted to have the procedure done.

He decided to go with Sloan-Kettering despite having to leave

home for six months.

During his time in New York, Hernandez and his family will live

in the Ronald McDonald House, which provides a free stay to cancer

patients and their families.

Hernandez’s parents will alternate every two weeks in Manhattan

because they both have jobs and commitments in Colorado.

The bone marrow transplant procedure takes about four weeks. If

it is successful, David Hernandez will have to undergo four more

surgeries to eliminate cancerous tumors. He said the procedure also

has several side effects. Twenty percent of people experience

permanent hearing loss and 10 percent of people have organ failure

and die, he said.

One of the problems with using the bone marrow transplant now,

Hernandez said, is that it makes it nearly impossible to use the

procedure again.

“So it’s kind of like we’re using all our weapons right now,

which is kind of scary. Because this means this has got to be it,

this has got to be the final stand,” he said.

The road ahead

Hernandez has considered his life if he doesn’t become one of

the three successes.

If he goes to New York and the procedure is not successful, at

least he tried the best he could, he said.

“I was given 20 years, and I’m lucky to have that. I mean, I

know other terminal cancer patients who don’t have 20 years, and I

was healthy for 20 so I can stress I’m very lucky,” he said.

If the procedure is not successful, doctors said he would have

about six months.

“But hopefully that won’t be the case,” he said, pausing a

moment to collect himself.

If Hernandez were deemed terminal, he would pretty much have two

options: stick with the chemo to slow up the process or to let it

go.

“I wouldn’t want to waste one minute of it hooked up to a chemo

thing,” he said.

But Hernandez remains optimistic by looking beyond next

year.

“So ideally, if everything goes according to plan, this took a

year out of my life, a year that was dedicated to cancer and

beating it, which I don’t think is that bad, for beating cancer, a

year,” he said.

The year away from his life has led him to change his career

goals, however. Instead of wanting to be a police officer, as he

did before November, he now wants to be a nurse.

He feels he can offer a unique perspective to patients in his

care.

“I see this profession and I idolize it because of what it’s

meant to me and I want to mirror that,” he said. “Maybe I’ll tell

them, ‘Hey I’ve been in your situation, you know. I’ve been laying

in that bed myself, and I’m OK.’ Well, hopefully it will boost

their spirits.”

If Hernandez does get better, and the procedure does eliminate

the cancer, he will still always have to worry about the cancer

coming back. He said he eventually will die of cancer; it’s just a

matter of time.

Carpe diem

But for now, Hernandez is focused on living for today.

Before he left for New York, he planned to do some things he did

not have the chance to do in the hospital.

He wanted to eat sushi because he had a craving for it.

He wanted to ride a horse so he could take care of himself.

“(With cancer) you’re constantly being taken care of,” he said.

“You’re never really by yourself.”

He also has three recommendations for other students: seize the

day, do not be afraid to change a life’s direction and do not give

up when others offer doubt.

He said people should not put off things in life, because they

may not have a chance later.

“I mean honestly, you never know when you’re going to be cut

down in the prime of your life,” he said.

This experienced outlook on life was something he always had,

his family said, but the cancer has enhanced it.

“He’s always been mature,” said Robert Hernandez, David’s

father. “I think this is another level of maturity.”

Regardless of what happens in New York, David Hernandez wants to

have no regrets about his life.

“Whether I live a year or 50 more years, I realize this is one

of the best times of my life and I’ve got to take advantage of

that.”

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