Life is beautiful to this Stage 4 lymphoma survivor

September 13, 2018 | by Samantha Bonar

Marisol lymphoma survivor | City of Hope Christian "Marisol" Molina
Christian “Marisol” Molina, 34, was feeling worn down. She had a dry cough she couldn’t shake and was always tired. An assistant manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Molina found the air conditioning in the office exacerbated her cough so much it made it difficult to go into work.

Her doctor told her it was probably allergies, but when allergy medication had no effect on her symptoms and with her exhaustion getting worse, Molina returned to the doctor. 

“They did some ultrasounds. I remember the doctor coming in looking pretty worried,” Molina said. “He said they found some large masses in my neck and my chest.” They biopsied a lump in Molina’s neck. “I remember being in that cold room at the doctor’s office, just waiting for him to tell me what kind of cancer it was,” Molina said. “He told me it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma and it was Stage 4. My world turned upside down. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die.’”

The Journey Begins

The very next day Molina started receiving chemotherapy at her local hospital. After five months of chemotherapy, a PET scan showed that her lymph nodes were getting larger: the cancer was still growing. “It was a heavy blow,” she said.  At that point, her doctor referred her to Alex Herrera, M.D., a hematologist/ oncologist and assistant professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope. Herrera specializes in lymphoma treatment at the Toni Stephenson Lymphoma Center, a leading-edge research and treatment facility dedicated to delivering lifesaving advances to lymphoma patients.

“He’s been wonderful because he was very thorough with everything. He never sugarcoated anything, he was very direct and let me know step by step everything we were doing,” Molina said. “I started having a little bit of hope. I trusted that he was going to take the right steps to take me where I needed to be.”

Herrera put Molina on a trial drug that did not have the harsh side effects of traditional chemotherapy. If Molina’s cancer could be put into remission, she could undergo a stem cell transplant, which would give her her best chance of survival.

Fleeting Success

Molina had stopped working while undergoing treatment, and the lack of activity was making her depressed. “I’m the type of person who’s very active. I love working, I love going to the gym, I love hiking, I love being out and about. My life had to change all of a sudden where I was just at home,” she said. “I started getting pretty sad because I didn’t know what to do with myself.” She adopted a cat, Nala, who became her “best companion in the world.” She also picked up a new hobby of cooking.

Luckily, four months on the trial drug worked, and Molina began preparing for her autologous stem cell transplant (using her own cells). She knew she would be hospitalized for over a month following the procedure, “which was very scary for me.” However, she said she was “happy and very hopeful.”

“I recovered pretty quickly,” Molina recalled. “Within two to three months I was back hiking, cooking. I was feeling a lot lot better.” But Herrera thought he saw something on Molina’s six-month scan. Three months later, another scan, followed by a biopsy, revealed the worst: The lymphoma had returned.

“I was just devastated,” Molina said. “My doctor was reassuring me, but as much as I wanted to believe him, it was really hard to.”

“During that time I just couldn’t see the lighter side of things,” Molina said. “Usually I was really happy and always joked around with my family. I’m the goofy one, no matter how old I get. I lost that for a while.” When her City of Hope social worker suggested she talk to a psychologist there, Molina was scared at first. “I didn’t know if I was ready to open up,” she admitted. “The only time I wanted to talk about cancer was when I was with my doctor.” But, “I was so devastated about everything, and I knew I needed help.”

'The Answers Within Myself' 

Molina began meeting with Marissa Cangin, Psy.D., assistant clinical professor in the Department of Supportive Care Medicine at City of Hope. “Now I can’t imagine being able to get through this without her,” she said. “She has challenged me to find the answers within myself. She helped me learn different strategies and techniques to cope with my anxiety, like practicing mindfulness. That has helped me out a lot. She helped me learn to feel better about myself. It’s OK and normal to feel scared.”

Marisol lymphoma survivor | City of Hope Molina holds a bag filled with her brother’s stem cells, waiting for a third chance at wellness.
Another round of the experimental drug put Molina’s lymphoma in remission again. This past July, she had her second stem cell transplant, this one allogeneic, with stem cells donated by her brother. “I felt good about that because I knew my cells didn’t help out,” Molina said. “I know in the Hispanic community, there’s not a lot of donors. Luckily my brother and my dad were matches. My doctors wanted to go for my brother because he’s younger. It just feels amazing that he’s my donor because he’s my best friend.”

Recovery from the procedure was tougher this time around, and Molina was hospitalized for over a month with bad neuropathy. “My family was visiting me almost daily. My doctor would come reassure me. Dr. Cangin was coming in weekly, and we would practice mindfulness and meditate. Just seeing all of the support I was getting from my friends and family and everyone at City of Hope was so meaningful to me,” Molina said. “Knowing what great people are in my life at a time when I was battling for my life — you don’t forget those moments.”

An Unshakeable Bond 

Ironically, at the same time that Molina was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, her mother was diagnosed with cancer — twice. First with breast cancer, then, a year later, thyroid cancer. Molina insisted she go to City of Hope for treatment.
Marisol lymphoma survivor | City of Hope Molina (right) with her mother and brother. Says Marisol: “I could never express how thankful I am to have such a loving, supportive family.”
“My mom and I got so much closer,” Molina said. “The way two cancer patients relate to each other is different. We understood each other. We would make fun of each other being bald. We would laugh about things and complain about things. Her situation actually helped me to be stronger, to show her that we could both get through it.”

Today, both mother and daughter are in remission. Two PET scans since Molina’s July 2017 stem cell transplant have been clear. “I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly I felt free. I feel like I’ve been stuck in jail for three years,” she said.

“I look at life in a new way now,” added Molina, who is embarking on a new career as a pupil services coordinator for the L.A. Unified School District. “I feel like cancer held me back from what I wanted to do in life, but at the same time it pushed me to change my life. I don’t feel like the same person that I was before. I’m better. I enjoy life so much more. I appreciate the little things. I laugh at the things some people complain about. I feel like if I can get through that, I can get through anything. I enjoy every single day. I tell myself, ‘As long as you’re breathing and able to put a smile on your face, you’re good.’

“Everything just looks so much more beautiful, knowing that I can move forward.”
If you are looking for a second opinion about your lymphoma diagnosis or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-4673. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.

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