Tyler Cordova sums himself up like this: “I’m pretty unique, you see. I never follow the book. You get my story, chances are your story’s going to be completely different.”
He has weathered two different blood cancers and continues to contend with related complications — all this in less than a decade of life.
|Just weeks after his 2009 transplant, Tyler Cordova talks basketball with Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom. (Photo by Thomas Brown)|
Yet Tyler is enthusiastic, funny and articulate well beyond his years. Most of all, he is unwaveringly positive. These attributes make him an inspiration for a legion of supporters, from his family members to charity runners, all united to seek answers to the diseases that have affected his life and many others.
“One thing that amazes me about Tyler: Any day that he has energy, he’s always full of joy, trying to make the best of that day,” said Tyler’s father, Derek Cordova. “He’s definitely an example, not just for people with cancer, but for everybody, trying to make the most of each day.”
What first manifested as flu symptoms and breathing problems when Tyler was 4 turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a mass had wrapped around his heart and was pushing on his airway. Chemotherapy sent the disease into remission, but the following year, the young Santa Clarita, Calif., resident returned to the hospital yet again: Now he had leukemia.
Doctors ultimately recommended that Tyler seek a lifesaving but often challenging procedure known as hematopoietic cell transplantation. First, radiation therapy kills off diseased blood cells. Then patients receive healthy blood stem cells to establish a new, cancer-free circulatory and immune system.
“Everybody we talked to said City of Hope was the best place to go for that,” Derek Cordova said.
At City of Hope, Tyler received stem cells from an anonymous, unrelated donor in fall 2009. The transplant proved successful in beating back leukemia. Since then, side effects — including graft-versus-host disease, in which the donated immune system turns against a patient’s body — have drawn Tyler back to City of Hope.
During his stays, he enjoys recreation therapy led by Toni Carreras-Irwin, R.T.C. She challenges him and other young patients to games and offers other play activities that reduce the anxiety of hospitalization. Carreras-Irwin singles out Tyler as a valuable contributor to the social interaction.
“Every time he comes to group, he is an inspiration to the other kids,” she smiled. “He’s always supportive of his peers.”
Tyler and his family have turned their experiences into a way to motivate others to support the search for cures.
He and his mother, Holly Cordova, visit high schools to encourage students to donate toward the fight against blood cancers. Tyler also has gotten involved with Team in Training. Through this program, supporters train for and complete endurance events such as marathons or 100-mile bike rides to raise funds for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. As an “honored teammate,” he shares his story to help inspire fundraisers. The society named Tyler the 2009 Boy of the Year for its Greater Los Angeles region.
Sheila Hammer, M.S.W., a clinical social worker with City of Hope’s Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center, ran the San Francisco Nike Women’s and Los Angeles marathons with Team in Training when Tyler served as her chapter’s honored teammate. The teams for both seasons, each numbering about 50, garnered nearly $300,000 in all.
Hammer said: “Seeing what Tyler and his family have gone through, people kind of said, ‘You know what? This has got to stop.’ So we raised money hopefully to find a cure one day. He’s an amazing, amazing child, and he has touched a lot of lives.”