September 15, 2016 | by Michael Easterling
Throughout September, which is Blood Cancers Awareness Month, City of Hope is featuring stories on blood cancer patients and treatment. Each year, more than 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. City of Hope’s immunotherapy trials targeting blood cancers, and unrivaled survival among its bone marrow transplantation patients, make it a world leader in leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma treatment.
Ivan Garcia-Burgos was a typical 21-year-old: hanging out with friends, working on his beloved sports car and playing team volleyball. He especially liked driving up Pacific Coast Highway, enjoying the scenery, sunset and serenity. Yet at a time in life that should be about hope for the future, Ivan had to confront the cold reality that he may not have one.
On June 5, 2014, Ivan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He came to City of Hope as a patient of Ibrahim Aldoss, M.D., assistant clinical professor of hematology and hematopoietic cell transplantation.
“Ivan’s diagnosis is the most common leukemia in children, but it is uncommon in someone his age,” Aldoss says. Ivan endured high doses of chemotherapy – 15 minutes, four times a day – and total body radiation, in preparation for a stem cell transplant. He lost 25 pounds and at one point had a severe case of violent hiccups as a result of his body adjusting to the treatment.
“There were times, I admit, that I wanted to call it quits,” says Ivan, now cancer-free. “I wondered why this was happening to me. The treatment was very rough on me at times.” It was during one treatment session that Ivan looked out of his hospital room window and saw the sun setting over downtown Los Angeles. “It took me to a moment of serenity, like the sunset and peacefulness of my drives on PCH,” he says. “And I just thought – I am here. I am blessed to be alive. I was almost through with my chemotherapy and I knew that I had a choice – to give up or to fight. I chose to fight.”
While many wait months or years for a match (and sometimes don’t find one), a donor was found for Ivan within three months of his original diagnosis through the Be The Match National Marrow Donor Program.
“Finding a donor so soon after my diagnosis was a miracle,” says Ivan, now 24. “For me, it was winning the medical lottery.” Last month Ivan’s donor found him through the registry and reached out. “I was so happy to meet the person who saved my life,” he says. Donor Carlos Vallejo traveled from his native Tampa, Florida, and the two got to know each other over the summer.
The choice he made from his hospital bed motivated him to create “Ivan’s Choice,” a nonprofit foundation to help other youth and children going through cancer. A year in, the foundation has raised more than $5,000 to help cover the costs of medications, co-payments and other expenses. Ivan is also organizing several fundraising events, and has decided to pursue a career where he can advocate for patients.
“I want to give something back from what I was given, to pay it forward,” says Ivan, a student at Orange Coast College studying communications. “I want to be in a position where I can make a difference for patients by communicating to them in a way that works for them, that comforts and informs them. Maybe I can inspire them by telling them my story and how, after everything, I came out on top.”
The miracle of finding a donor, combined with the science treating his body and the compassion soothing his soul, made for an “amazing” experience under the gravest of circumstances. “It was Dr. Aldoss and the City of Hope team, and the care and the support of my family and friends that got me through this.”
Now back at school, Ivan has begun playing volleyball again. This season, he has been named captain, with hopes of leading the Pirates to victory more than once. “You can’t give up,” Ivan says. “You have a choice to make, and I chose to live.”
Learn more about City of Hope's leukemia program and research.