Hybrid leukemia patient Monica Weld with her young daughter
Four months after the birth of her daughter, Monica Weld thought she was experiencing typical new-mom exhaustion.
The San Dimas, California, resident had returned to her job as a receptionist in a busy veterinary office, and she thought, ‘This is why moms complain about being tired after having kids,’” she said. “I thought it was just my body adjusting to being a new mom and going back to work.”
But as the months went by, she wasn’t feeling any better. “Motherhood is really kicking my butt,” she thought.
Then, in September 2014, nine months after her daughter’s birth, Weld got a bad sore throat and cough that she just couldn’t shake. Doctors brushed it off as postnasal drip. On her third visit to the doctor’s office, a nurse practitioner ordered bloodwork. Later that evening, while Weld was at dinner with her husband, the doctor’s office called and told her to go to the emergency room immediately. “Something is wrong with your blood,” she recalled them telling her.
Weld and her husband went directly to the hospital, where she was admitted, received a battery of tests and a blood transfusion, and remained for the next two months. Tests showed she had not one, but two kinds of leukemia: acute lymphoblastic (ALL) and acute myeloid (AML).
“It didn’t really register at first,” said Weld, now 35. “The first thing I thought about was my baby daughter.
“The doctor said this is a really bad, stubborn leukemia,” Weld recalled. “There was nothing positive. It doesn’t have a good prognosis. It can come back. I got more and more depressed.”
Weld’s doctor said she needed aggressive chemotherapy and then a bone marrow transplant, which is how she ended up at City of Hope. Her younger brother was a perfect match, and by December she was prepping for the procedure.
“Once I got to City of Hope, they were phenomenal,” she said. “I felt very special there. I felt like they had white gloves on the whole time, walking me through that process. I was so alone in this disease, but they really hold your hand. It was wonderful.”
Weld received her bone marrow transplant in January 2015, just before her daughter’s first birthday. City of Hope helped the family throw a birthday party for her in the lobby so that Weld could attend. “They really tried to give me some sense of normalcy, even though I was going through such a crappy thing,” she said. “My family brought a cake. I’m wearing my mask and I’m hooked up to IVs and I have my IV pole. It’s not the first birthday party I envisioned for my one and only child.”
Meanwhile, the chemotherapy drugs and prednisone had left Weld hairless and bloated. “I didn’t look like myself. I wasn’t prepared for that,” she said. In addition, the treatment rendered her permanently infertile. “I wanted at least a companion for my daughter, so that was traumatic,” she said.
Recovery from the transplant wasn’t easy. “It felt like I was hungover or had the flu,” Weld said. It was also hard on her mentally. Neurotoxicity from the medication — at one point she was taking 22 pills a day — caused episodes of hallucinations that led to Weld being hospitalized. “I felt my mind took it worse than my body,” she said. “Just because your counts are normal on the computer doesn’t mean you’re OK mentally.”
Weld, here with her husband and daughter, has taken up running again
Weld tried to go back to work but felt overwhelmed. She realized, “My body’s healed but my mind is not. I felt like my mind and my body weren’t together.” She decided to quit her job and focus on getting her mental and emotional health back on track.
She started seeing Marissa Cangin, Psy.D., at City of Hope, and realized that she was suffering from something akin to a soldier’s post-tramatic stress disorder. “My dad, who’s a Vietnam vet, said, ‘Mija, you went to war with your body.’”
Cangin, Weld said, is “helping me baby step my way toward feeling normal again. My goal is to get back to work sometime later this year. But it’s very important that I’m taking this time to get my mind right.
“People say, ‘Just put it behind you,’” Weld added. “I can’t put it behind me. My hair is short. I still see the doctor for tests every month. I had so much support from my family and friends, but I felt so alone.”
Now in remission for two years, Weld is focusing on finding herself again, “because I felt like I lost myself in all of that trauma.” Previously a runner, she’s bought new running and hiking shoes and has already run a 5K — pushing her daughter in a jogging stroller the whole way. Her finish time is irrelevant to her. “I feel like my personal best was getting my radiation medal from City of Hope,” she said. “Fighting cancer is the biggest race of your life.”
She has joined a support group for other leukemia and lymphoma survivors at City of Hope that meets monthly. “It’s just nice to be around other people who went through the same thing,” she said. “I feel like I gained a family at City of Hope. I never thought I’d be saying that — at this place where I thought I was going to die. City of Hope helped me mind, body and soul.”
Surprisingly, there has been an upside to leukemia for Weld.
“Having cancer shook my brain and in a way it shifted all my ways of thinking,” she said. “I enjoy the little things now. Before, I cared about getting expensive purses and stuff like that, and now I like being with my family. I like being outdoors. I see it as maybe I needed it to wake me up.”
She also has a new attitude toward her body and her health. “It’s unfair now to go back to my old habits of eating fast food more than I should. I don’t think it’s fair to my new self. I try to make healthier things, like pizza with cauliflower crust, and drink more water and keep moving and surround myself with positive people.”
“Experiences are more important now,” she said, such as taking her daughter to Disneyland. “Cancer made me have this fire under me to reach my goals.”
Weld wanted to share her story because when she was first diagnosed, she couldn’t find any encouraging stories about patients with hybrid leukemia. “I want to give other people in my situation hope,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re fighting alone.” She also wanted to tell other cancer patients to not neglect “the mental stuff. If you’re crying and things you need to get help, and it’s OK.”
Recovering from cancer, she says, is a marathon, not a sprint.