July 12, 2017 | by Samantha Bonar
Monica Curiel was 19 years old, a freshman in college, and in the midst of all the “excitement of independence and confusion of figuring out what I wanted to do with my career and my life.”
Then one moment she was driving on the freeway singing along to the radio and the next she was upside down in her Kia Rio.
Shortness of breath that Curiel attributed to chronic bronchitis had caused her to black out and crash her car. In the ER, her doctor noticed abnormally large lymph nodes in her neck and suggested she get that checked. But it was finals week, so she put it off. However, when she couldn’t catch her breath after a bout of laughing soon after, she landed back in the ER.
Scans showed enlarged lymph nodes in Curiel’s neck and chest that were impacting her breathing. Doctors told her the cause was either “an infection or cancer.” Unfortunately, it was not an infection. Once surgical biopsies confirmed Hodgkin lymphoma, “everything became a blur.” Curiel began chemotherapy immediately at City of Hope. She ended up undergoing six months of chemotherapy and another six months of recovery.
I dealt with depression and anxiety and a lot of confusion, but having the team of doctors, nurses and caregivers at City of Hope is truly the reason I am alive today,” she said. “They not only helped me become a survivor, but they gave me hope.”
To pass time during treatment, Curiel began drawing stick-figure characters of new patients who came into the pediatric ward.
“Soon, some nurses and parents began asking for little stick-figure drawings — it helped lighten the mood,” she said. “One day, one of my medical team members suggested I turn the stick figures into a book. I wanted to create something specifically for patients undergoing chemo — there are a lot of books out there to explain cancer, but most often they are geared toward caregivers and their families. I wanted to provide something for the cancer patient to give them an idea of what to expect, but do so in a very light and direct way.”
The book, "Stella’s Picture Day," for pediatric cancer patients, was published in May 2016 and is available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon. The book is about a little girl with cancer who is nervous about school photos.
Curiel, now 24 and living in Lawrence, Kansas, is focused on finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas. After finishing her treatment at City of Hope, she said she needed a fresh start in a new place, and fell in love with the atmosphere and people of Kansas while visiting a friend there. “After living in the city, it has been a real home with a fun, artsy and diverse scene without the traffic, pollution and overcrowdedness of some major cities,” she said.
However, after being cancer-free for about six months, she relapsed while attending school. At that point she underwent chemotherapy, radiation and an autologous bone marrow transplant. Treatment and recovery for her relapse also lasted about a year, with “brutal” side effects, she said.
“I dealt with severe depression and anxiety that came with being in a hospital room for so long and not being able to walk, eat, drink water, bathe myself or brush my teeth. It took a strong toll on my mental health,” she said. However, now she feels that her mental health is steadily improving, and she no longer takes antidepressants.
Physically, she lost some sight and hearing because of her treatment, she said. Her night vision was particularly affected. Chemo has also affected her memory, she said, and made her physically weak for a time.
“The first year it was hard for me to go on hikes or have a lot of physical activity, but now I can enjoy all of the things I once loved such as hiking, running, swimming, going out dancing. Same for the things I eat. Right after treatment I couldn't eat a lot of foods. Now I can eat mostly anything, but I try to stick to a plant-based diet.”
Even though she is regaining her physical and mental health in Middle America, that doesn’t mean that Curiel has given up on exploring the world.
“I am immersing myself in learning a new language, with aspirations to study abroad,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to not take time for granted, enjoy the every day.”
Curiel has been cancer-free for three years now.
“I still get nervous when I get sick or have chest pains, but if there is anything I've learned, it's that there is only so much an individual can do to help prevent a serious diagnosis,” she said. “But so long as you are striving toward the betterment of yourself and remaining grateful, a healthy and happy lifestyle can be achieved. I know it's not always easy — the worry of it coming back is natural, but there's no use in letting it consume you. After all, there is only so much you can control, so you might as well enjoy life and find the things, people, places, beliefs that make you happy and help you deal with stress, anxiety or even depression. Point is to not settle for the day ‘you will be happy,’ but to simply enjoy the every day and happiness will come.”
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