An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Abe Rosenberg | September 13, 2019
Amanda Salas Hero | City of Hope Amanda Salas before and after starting chemotherapy treatment.
Don’t mess with Amanda Salas in the bon mot department.
 
On social media, the high-energy entertainment reporter for FOX 11 Los Angeles calls herself the “Latina on the Scene-a” and the “Freelance Punsultant” with “Puns of Steel!”
 
She credits a bit of well-timed wordplay for launching her career years ago.
 
Fresh out of Cal State Long Beach and auditioning for her first on-air gig, Salas disarmed producers and outclassed 300 applicants when, instead of reading some generic script, she let fly with a spur-of-the-moment pun. “They lifted their heads and went, ‘Whoa, what was that?’” she recalled. “I got the job.”
 
She’s equally disarming with A-list celebs. Not one to get starstruck (“Excited, yeah, but I’m no fangirl!”), Salas throws them off balance with out-of-the-box questions, like her Pop Culture Pop Quiz. “Makes great TV!” she laughs.
 
Off camera she’s pretty much the same: hilarious, genuine, intelligent, super stylish, full-throttle positive energy. “She’s one of my favorite people,” said friend and colleague Alan Yudman, a FOX 11 producer. “She lights up whatever room she’s in.”
 
At home, Salas sports a constant smile as she dotes on her visitor, plays with her rescue dog and banters good-naturedly with her mother, all the while radiating warmth and humor.

An Unexpected Diagnosis

Friends say Salas's personality and attitude haven’t changed, even though everything else did on June 20. That’s the day she was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
 
She’d felt ill for a while, losing weight for no apparent reason, itching with no visible rash. And her face had become swollen. She caught a glimpse of her appearance on video, interviewing Tom Hanks for "Toy Story 4."
 
“Wow,” she thought. “I’m supposed to talk to Pixar characters, not look like one!”
 
Her doctor suggested simple fatigue. Salas knew better.
 
“You have to be your own advocate,” she said. “You have to listen to your body, and get a second opinion.”
 
Tests eventually revealed a large tumor (“as big as a grapefruit”) growing between her heart and lungs.
 
The formal name is primary mediastinal large B cell lymphoma. PMBCL makes up about 2% of all non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cases, and it strikes mostly young women.
 
“Wouldn’t you know it,” said the TV star, “I get the cancer with 'media' in it.”
 
She jokes about it, but also admits, “I’m still waiting for the shock to wear off.” She was 34 and enjoying the best year of her professional life. Cancer was the last thing she expected.
 
Mom was shocked, too.
 
“Amanda texted me,” recalled Anne Marie Salas. “I could see the fright in her words. It was a nightmare. How could this happen to my little girl?”
 
Salas turned to City of Hope, where lymphoma specialist Alex Herrera, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, recognized her condition immediately.
 
“Her situation is typical,” he said. “This cancer does tend to grow quite large before it’s detected.”

Responsive to treatment

Fortunately, with the right treatment PMBCL can go away almost as rapidly as it appears, and usually it doesn’t come back. Chemotherapy brings about a remission in a majority of patients. At three years, the survival rate is better than 90%, and most patients who don’t have a recurrence in the first few years after treatment are considered cured.
 
There are two drug combinations for treating PMBCL, both known by their initials: R-CHOP (cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine and prednisone, plus rituximab) and EPOCH-R (etoposide, prednisone, vincristine, cyclophosphamide and doxorubicin, plus rituximab).
 
Herrera chose an intensive course of EPOCH-R for Salas because it can achieve a high cure rate without the need for follow-up radiation to the chest, something Herrera tries to avoid in his young female patients. “It increases the risk for breast cancer down the road,” he said.
 
But “intensive course” means exactly that: six rounds of nonstop chemo, administered around the clock.
 
Salas did the first round in the hospital, hooked up to tubes delivering chemo continuously over a five-day period. She handled the next rounds with a portable drug-filled “fanny pack” she could wear at home. (“Chemo-to-Go!” she quipped. “Now I’m the Latina on the medicina! Wearing Chemo-flage!”)
 
Each patient reacts differently to the dramatic changes brought on by chemotherapy. Some folks stay private. Others seek comfort with family and friends. Some put on wigs. Some don’t.
 
Salas threw a buzz party.
 
As long as her hair was falling out anyway, she thought, why not just shave it off and make it a public event?
 
So there she was in the salon chair, surrounded by friends, co-workers and loved ones, and with each pass of the electric clippers everyone in the room downed a shot of tequila. “That way,” she explained, “we all got buzzed!”
 
And they all could watch themselves on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. By design.
 
Salas may be a public figure, but she does have a private, fiercely independent side. She doesn’t like asking for help. Nevertheless, she made a deliberate decision to share her cancer journey on social media. To pay it forward.
 
“Early on,” she remembered, “during those sleepless nights in the hospital, I started searching online for other women with lymphoma. And they really helped me.”

Pancakes and Bracelets

So now she returns the favor, sharing her feelings, giving encouragement and building Amanda’s Army   offering T-shirts and bracelets, running fundraisers like a September 15 pancake breakfast to mark World Lymphoma Awareness Day and partnering with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event Nov. 9 — all to raise consciousness and support fellow cancer patients who need financial help.
 
“I’m in awe of her courage. I’ve never been more proud of her,” said Anne Marie Salas, proudly displaying her own Amanda’s Army shirt, complete with jumbo green ribbon. She is one of many Salas family members now tag-teaming to support Amanda and make sure she’s never alone.
 
“Amanda is not your typical patient,” Herrera added. “She’s remarkable and her whole family is just wonderful.”
 
“She’s completely unique,” echoed colleague Yudman. “Her strength made it easier for everyone else to cope. I’m not sure I could be that honest, open and forthcoming.”
 
Her FOX workmates produced a video tribute to Salas that ran on Good Day L.A. and racked up some 5 million views online.
 
Salas appreciates the praise, but tempers it. “I never knew how strong I was until I had to be,” she said. “There are still days I just don’t want to get out of bed. To deal with it, you have to force yourself to laugh, at least once a day. When you laugh, you don’t hurt.”
 
Four rounds of chemo have sent Salas’s lymphoma into remission, and the future looks good. She’s grateful.
 
“Dr. Herrera saved my life. I could not be in better hands,” she said. “[City of Hope] feels like home.”
 
For Salas it’s been quite the chemotional (sorry) rollercoaster. Or, as she put it in a recent Instagram post:
 
Gained a little weight.
Lost a lot of hair.
Heart stayed the same.
Cancer might knock me down
But it can’t keep me there!
 
****

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