An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Zen Vuong | December 4, 2019
Mesa, Arizona, resident Ivan Garcia-Burgos was 21 years old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer that hinders the body’s ability to fight infection. He endured high doses of chemotherapy to prepare his body for a stem cell transplant. Garcia-Burgos lost 50 pounds over the course of his treatment and said, “There were times that I wanted to call it quits.” But he remembered all he still had to live for and decided to fight.
Carlos Vallejo, a donor from Tampa, Florida, was identified, and Garcia-Burgos received a transplant that left him cancer-free. He created a nonprofit called Ivan’s Choice Leukemia Foundation to pay it forward and give families insight so that they’re more emotionally prepared to handle the disease and treatment. (Read more about his cancer journey here.)
Garcia-Burgos, now 27, reflects on his cancer journey as he mentally prepares to start the new year.
After your diagnosis, what were your main worries and challenges?
The biggest challenge was not knowing my future – not knowing if I would live long enough to even have a future. It’s ironic because before I was diagnosed, I lived my life one day at a time. I didn’t take college seriously and wasn’t really motivated to accomplish a whole lot. But once I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, I reflected on my life and where I wanted to be if I survived the disease.
Why did you decide to come to City of Hope?
I lived in Irvine, California, at the time, so I initially went to a local hospital there. One of their hematologists said that if her child had cancer, she would want him to go to City of Hope because City of Hope is an excellent comprehensive cancer center that has had great success in treating unique cancers. My parents, who had power of attorney, took the hematologist’s advice. I’m glad they did.
What would you like to share about the specialized treatment you received at City of Hope?
City of Hope understands that every patient is unique, so their patients don’t receive a one-size-fits-all treatment plan. Every treatment is designed specifically for each patient. Nurses, social workers and everyone at City of Hope are invested in my health and genuinely cares that I get the best treatment and am the most comfortable I can be. Their patient care is second to none.
You are now cancer-free. How has your perspective on life changed?
Before my diagnosis, I was reckless and took life for granted. I went from being a lackadaisical film major at Saddleback Community College with a 1.5 G.P.A. in 2013 to a conscientious communications and marketing major at Orange Coast College in 2015. I would never have thought it were possible for me to be on the honor roll and dean’s list, but that’s what happened.
I figure, if I could conquer cancer, I could conquer any obstacle life throws my way. Cancer really put everything into perspective. I entered it on academic probation because I was apathetic about school and the future. After my treatment, I was given academic forgiveness. My academic record was wiped clean. I was given a second chance in both life and school! I plan to attend Arizona State University in 2020 and intend to continue excelling in school. Who knows what career path I have ahead of me, but I do know I’m excited and will put in my 100%.
Why would you recommend City of Hope to other people seeking treatment for cancer, diabetes or life-threatening diseases?
The doctors at City of Hope care. Even though they probably have hundreds of patients, they still make you feel special. Every morning when Dr. Ibrahim Aldoss came into my room at 7 a.m., he sat and talked with me and my family. He really cares.
One time I received a false positive in a diagnostic test. He rushed me into the hospital to run more tests and talked to his colleagues about my specific case, how he should treat me and really – what was the best course of action so that I could return to health. For about a week, he did everything he could to discover the best path forward. This incident showed me how City of Hope doctors will fight for their patients to the very end.
How else has this journey changed you?
To say the cancer journey is a gnarly experience is an understatement. I was diagnosed in June 2014, found a donor in July, was back in the hospital for a second round of chemotherapy and received my stem cell transplant on Sept. 3, 2014. Tests and procedures were a blur: I was stuck in the eye of a hurricane with no way to see where I would land. Luckily my parents had power of attorney and were able to make decisions for me.
After my bone marrow transplant, I was in intense pain. Imagine growing pains and multiply that by 10. My body was adjusting to my donor’s stem cells. The initial week was a dark time. I felt chills and had a fever. The pain was so intense that I had to be on liquid pain medication for six days straight just so that I could be comfortable – and it was still painful! When I was alone, I thought about how great it would be if I gave up and let the pain go away. I drifted in that darkness for a while before I remembered my family and friends and everyone I would leave behind.
I thought about the giant “hope” sign outside my hospital room and turned those letters into an acronym: Having Only Positive Expectations. That’s when I made a choice to continue fighting for my life. I lost about 50 pounds during my fight, but I made it.
When I recovered, I started a nonprofit called Ivan’s Choice Leukemia Foundation with the goal of being a “big brother” and encouraging kids undergoing cancer treatment. I want to infuse them with the power of hope and help them cope with the disease and treatment process.

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