2017 Rose Parade: 6 questions for lymphoma survivor Sebastian Sanchez-Luege

December 8, 2016 | by Denise Heady

For the 45th year in a row, City of Hope will participate in the Tournament of Roses Parade. This year, seven patients will welcome 2017 atop City of Hope’s Rose Parade float. The float, themed "The Miracle of Science with Soul," adds a deeper dimension to the parade’s theme of “Echoes of Success.”

Sebastian Sanchez-Luege was just 5 years old when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a rare condition that accounts for just 2 percent of blood cancers. A year later, just two weeks after he turned 7 Sanchez-Luege underwent a lifesaving stem cell transplant. While the road to recovery wasn’t easy, Sanchez-Luege has “no doubt” that the experience positively impacted his life and the people around him. Now a senior at Stanford University, Sanchez-Luege is preparing to graduate this June. His goal: to attend medical school and become a doctor. “I want to help other patients face their illnesses with hope and empathy, knowing full well what it is like to be a patient.”

Here, 21-year-old Sanchez-Luege shares some of the wisdom he's gained during his treatment journey.

What would you tell other patients who have been recently diagnosed?

I think as adults, we worry and stress over things that we cannot control and are constantly focused on the future. When you are 7, you are able to take each day for what it has to offer. If I woke up feeling well, I was not worried about what would happen tomorrow. I was ready to jump out of bed and go to the park or the beach. I remember playing miniature golf hooked to a portable IV, with a bucket next to me in case I had to throw up. So my advice to a new patient is to try to recapture the feeling we all carry in our heart of what it is like to be a kid. Implement that concept while you are undergoing treatment. Do the things you enjoy as often as possible, surround yourself with friends and family and distract yourself from what ails you. It is mind over matter.

What was your most pivotal emotional moment during treatment?

I received the stem cells on Oct. 1, 2002. By the end of that month, my white cell count remained at zero, which meant that perhaps the transplant had not worked. On Halloween, I dressed like a Trojan gladiator and waited for my brother, sister and cousins to arrive. I was frustrated because I could not walk the hallways like the other kids. Yet that was a pivotal day in my treatment.

Late in the afternoon, Dr. Rosenthal came by to deliver the news that finally I had a white count. Although at the time I did not know the significance of that information, I knew it was good news because the somber mood in the room suddenly became joyous. Besides, the doctor also told me that within a week or so I would be able to start walking the hallways. That part I completely understood.

What family member or loved one did you rely on most – and how did he/she help?

I have many people in my life to thank for the enormous emotional support I received during my illness. My mom, of course, was with me every day from the moment I got sick. She took a leave of absence from work for 18 months until I was able to start school. Mom made sure I was active and did not sit in bed all day watching TV or playing video games. She scheduled my days: We did school work, puzzles, played ball and went to the park or the beach. She made my life as normal as possible.

My dad went to work each day and took over the responsibility of taking care of my older brother and younger sister. I will always remember the day I came home from the hospital after my transplant. I had not seen my room for months and during my absence from home, Dad turned it into a Lakers-themed room. He painted the walls purple and yellow and trimmed the room with the Lakers logo. To this day, my room still remains the “Lakers Room.”

My aunts, uncles and cousins visited me constantly whenever I was in the hospital. My brother and my cousins often played baseball with an inflatable ball and bat on the underground pathway that connected the old main hospital to the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. Oh, the good old days!

Which person at City of Hope had the biggest impact – and how did he/she help?

Drs. Smita Bhatia and Wendy Landier had the biggest impact in my life. I still miss them and continue to stay in regular contact with them. Claudia Herrera has been phenomenal in coordinating all my Survivorship Clinic appointments. The nurses in the pediatric outpatient clinic were also very caring and patient with the kids.

What could a family member or loved one do to help a patient that they might not think of?

Family members need to be present. They need to be able to put up with the frustrations and fears of the patient and also have the ability to distract the person from his or her suffering. For me, my brother and cousins playing with me when I felt well enough was my best medicine. When I was moody and angry, my parents, uncles and aunts showed me much kindness and always found a way to make me laugh.

Who do you feel you owe the most "thanks" for your successes?

When I begun to recover from the transplant and get back into my life, my parents normalized my daily activities as much as possible. They started me in school, a few hours a day, as soon as the doctors authorized it. As I got stronger, they signed me up for the local baseball league. They always told me that my illness was not an excuse to slack off. They expected me to work hard at school and set high goals for my future. Today, I am a senior at Stanford University expecting to receive a Bachelor of Science in biology this coming June. My goal is to attend medical school and become a doctor. Some day I want to help other patients face their illnesses with hope and empathy, knowing full well what it is like to be a patient. 

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For more information about City of Hope's float, visit the City of Hope Rose Parade site.

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Learn more about our unique patient experience. If you have been diagnosed with cancer or are looking for a second opinion consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.

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