City of Hope harmonizes research, medical care to create melody that breathes new life into cancer, diabetes patients

Zen Vuong
Seven patients, accompanied by reality TV star Ethan Zohn, share their stories about how City of Hope’s compassionate care and innovative treatments composed a new melody of life for them.
DUARTE, Calif. — The scientific and medical miracles that occur every day at City of Hope are a result of the world-leading comprehensive cancer center’s ability to weave seemingly disparate teams into a healing “melody” that accompanies patients on their journey toward recovery. Seven of the institution’s patients will celebrate their second chance at life by riding City of Hope’s 2019 float during the 130th Rose Parade® presented by Honda on New Year’s Day.
Befitting the 2019 Rose Parade theme, “The Melody of Life,” City of Hope has named its 47th float “Harmony of Hope.” City of Hope fosters harmonious collaboration between different departments, academic disciplines, research efforts and physicians to speed scientific advances from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside. Its credo is to heal the body and bolster the soul so that patients can live successful, rewarding lives after cancer or other life-threatening diseases.
Ethan Zohn, winner of CBS’s reality TV show “Survivor” in 2002 and a two-time cancer survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, will ride on City of Hope’s float and live tweet via @EthanZohn. He is a keen supporter of cancer centers like City of Hope, whose track record in innovative treatment options like stem cell transplants and other cell-based therapies has prolonged so many lives.
Some of the float’s highlights include the monarch butterflies, which symbolize the metamorphosis City of Hope has undergone over its 105-year history. It is now an internationally recognized medical center and independent biomedical research institution that offers a unique blend of compassionate patient care and research innovation not found anywhere else. Like monarch butterflies who innately know the correct direction to migrate each year even though they’ve never made the journey, City of Hope’s physician-scientists have an internal compass that has led them to transform the medical landscape. For example, City of Hope made the foundational discoveries that led to the development of synthetic human insulin and numerous breakthrough cancer drugs.
City of Hope physicians and nurses will ride on the float next to their patients. The seven patients are a small sampling of the more than 68,400 international individuals City of Hope treated in 2018.
The riders on the float all agree that music plays an instrumental role in patients’ lives and recovery – helps them heal, brings them comfort or gives them temporary reprieve from a treatment’s side effects. One City of Hope patient developed her singing voice because her fragile condition prevented her from physical activity. Another patient, a bassist, contributed to the soundtrack of dozens of blockbuster movies that have touched so many lives. All of the patients say their medical team at City of Hope delivered kind, harmonious treatment that pumped life back into their souls.
The riders’ stories: (for more details, go to /rose-parade-float)
  • Abraham Laboriel, 71, from Tarzana: When Abraham Laboriel was diagnosed with a blood cancer called multiple myeloma in 2016, he swore he wouldn’t let the disease beat him. He chose to be treated at City of Hope because his wife, a pediatrician, told him, “We need to find a doctor who doesn’t find your case ‘interesting.’ City of Hope has performed more than 14,000 bone marrow and stem cell transplants. We’re going there.” During the two-week transplant process, Laboriel and his wife stayed in a bungalow on campus at City of Hope where he could eat home-cooked meals in a private space and have unlimited visits from his two sons who, like Laboriel, are gifted musicians. They all made music together every day. “Music is very healing and has a tremendous power to keep people going beyond their own strength,” Laboriel said. “Music helped me regain my strength after cancer.” Laboriel, originally from Mexico, is recognized by many as “the most widely used session bassist of our time.” He has played in more than 4,000 recordings and soundtracks, including “Coco,” “Jurassic World,” “Frozen,” “The Incredibles” and “Incredibles 2.” He has worked with people such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton, Elton John, Ray Charles and Madonna. Laboriel, now in total remission, is still actively touring and recording. He plans to continue to perform and record music indefinitely because he says musicians never really retire. Making music fills him with joy every day.
  • Caitlin Herron, 14, from Stevenson Ranch: The chemotherapy and full-body radiation that then 12-year-old Caitlin Herron underwent to treat a rare form of leukemia potentially stunted her growth, sidetracked her puberty and took away her ability to have children in the future. However, Herron, now 14 and in remission, said she prefers to think about the positive impact the disease has had. “Cancer affected my life in so many ways and changed how I saw life. It made me want to do all I can to give back” she said. “I just really want to be an advocate for anyone going through cancer because it’s a difficult process.” To rally herself before her treatment, Herron, who loves singing, performed publicly for the first time. She wanted to prove that she could face a long-held fear head on — an analogy for the anxiety she felt over her first round of chemotherapy. While at City of Hope, Herron often sang “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton because it reminded her to stay strong for the pediatric patients who had passed away while battling cancer. Herron is now a freshman in high school. She takes advanced courses, is involved in gymnastics and actively participates in many school activities. Herron hopes to learn how to play the guitar to one day create melodies for the songs she composed while in treatment at City of Hope. Most important, she hopes to inspire other cancer patients to continue to pursue their dreams despite all the hurdles and battles they may encounter.
  • Roger Sparks, 70, from Newport Beach: A litany of doctors’ visits and long periods stuck in infusion chairs makes Roger Sparks, who has type 1 diabetes, extremely thankful for his music playlist. Music, especially jazz, helped Sparks through dark emotions. “When you spend so much time at a hospital, it’s inevitable that there will be moments where you feel alone,” Sparks said. “It’s easy to get depressed. Listening to music lifted my spirits.” City of Hope’s experimental treatment removed Sparks’s symptoms of blood glucose control-related problems associated with his type 1 diabetes, a disease he has had since he was 33. For decades, Sparks was able to control his condition with insulin. But diabetic problems, including passing out due to hypoglycemia, began to interfere with his quality of life and profession as a computer executive with international clients. After some research, Sparks decided to undergo two islet cell transplants at City of Hope. The first one on Jan. 1, 2016, gave him a new lease on life for the New Year. He went from having about three low blood-sugar episodes a week to zero. He felt healthier than he had in a long time and decided to get another islet cell transplant to see if he could get off insulin altogether. His second transplant was in June 2016. Sparks no longer has to take insulin – just immunosuppression drugs. All of his diabetes-related problems have been eliminated. On Jan. 1, he will celebrate his three-year anniversary of feeling healthier than he has in decades thanks to City of Hope’s medical care.
  • Lauren Lugo, 26, from Laguna Niguel: From the moment Lauren Lugo began to crawl, her mother knew something was awry. But doctor after doctor brushed the worry away. As an 8 year old, Lugo bruised easily, had dark under-eye circles and suffered from major fatigue. X-rays revealed Lugo had unusual, growing pockets filled with blood in just about all of her bones. Doctors were befuddled. They said Lugo did not have cancer, and the blood-filled pockets were not malignant. Physicians, however, worried a push or fall would break her fragile bones, so Lugo avoided sports and physical activities. Instead, she learned how to play the piano and developed her singing voice. A surgical biopsy in her left femur revealed that she had “diffuse hemangiomatosis of the bone,” an extremely rare condition defined by the presence of nonmalignant tumors of blood vessels in bones. Lugo now knew what she had, but her doctors didn’t know how to treat it. By this time, Lugo was in her early teens. Her mom wanted answers and took her to a cancer research hospital. City of Hope’s Judith Sato, M.D., confirmed the diagnosis and prescribed a drug called interferon that made the blood pockets smaller and stabilized Lugo’s health. Two years later, the type of interferon Lugo took stopped being manufactured, but because her condition was stable, Sato did not prescribe a new drug. City of Hope is closely monitoring Lugo’s health. Lugo said going through something so serious and severe gave her confidence. “I didn’t let my disease hinder me. I wanted to prove that your situation doesn’t define you. How you rise from them and your hope gives you the greatest gifts.” So rather than observing life, Lugo took on leadership roles in middle and high school, started a choir in high school and volunteered for charities like Habitat for Humanity, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and Toby’s House Crisis Nursery, which provides refuge and safety for abused and neglected children. She even learned oldies so that she could sing memory-inducing songs to senior citizens who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Notably, Lugo has performed opera at Carnegie Hall and aspires to be a professional opera singer.
  • Candida Celaya, 54, from San Dimas: Two weeks after Candida Celaya was told she had the BRCA2 mutation that significantly increases breast cancer risk, the middle school teacher was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. Although two of her older sisters already survived breast cancer thanks to City of Hope, Celaya’s first thought was that she was going to die. Instead, she had a double mastectomy at City of Hope, immediate reconstructive surgery, chemotherapy and then radiation. The day before starting chemotherapy, Celaya watched the musical “Wicked” and was touched by the song “Defying Gravity.” The song imbued her with strength and became her theme song to survive cancer and restructure her life. For example, Celaya had always wanted to volunteer but never did. She also wanted to return to musical theater after taking a long hiatus but never found the time. Now, she fosters dogs, shares her cancer story via City of Hope platforms and performs as often as she is able to in local theatre. “Illness lit a fire under me to do the things I’ve always wanted to do and to give back to my community in ways that I had always thought were important but couldn’t find time to do,” she said. “Faced with death, I re-evaluated my life and understood I needed to live a purposeful life going forward. I wanted to do my part in leaving this world a better place — not just for my family but also for the community.”
  • Olivia Gaines, 23, from Eagle Rock: Olivia Gaines was an undergraduate student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She took a leave of absence from school and came to City of Hope for a stem cell transplant. Her cancer is now gone, but she continues to be treated for graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a long-term side effect that occurs in about half of allogeneic stem cell transplant patients. Gaines is an aspiring songwriter and amateur pianist who tutored children, including those with autism, how to play the piano. She believes music – especially Disney songs – has the ability to eject fear and anxiety from pediatric patients. For this reason, she recommends that people subscribe to a streaming service or create a playlist for hospital patients rather than buy flowers. Gaines works at a strength-training facility in Eagle Rock that trains specialized populations, including cancer patients, how to move smart and stay strong. Temporarily on leave from school, Gaines continues to fill her brain with knowledge by asking physicians, nurses, cancer patients and everyone she encounters a myriad of questions. She also goes to the library at City of Hope to read scientific papers on her disease. “I’ve had the most amazing people come teach me here at City of Hope, where I received lifesaving treatments.”
  • Cheryl Wiers, 43, from Redlands: Cheryl Wiers thought she was rid of her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice, but it returned each time. The mother of two eventually put her trust in a groundbreaking City of Hope treatment that combined chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T and autologous stem cell transplant. CAR T therapy reprograms white blood cells called T cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells by adding a CAR to those cells. In Wiers’s case, CAR T cells were genetically engineered to target the antigen CD19, a protein found on the surface of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other cancers. So far, the treatment has kept Wiers’s cancer from returning for a third time. Certain songs bring back memories of the drive from her home in Redlands to City of Hope. It was a music-filled hour. To this day, “Down to the River” by Jordan Feliz retrieves memories of family trips to City of Hope. Wiers, a speech pathologist, is now cancer-free. Music continues to play an important part in her life by demarcating different life moments.
–      #harmonyofhope     –
About City of Hope
City of Hope is an independent research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. Designated as one of only 49 comprehensive cancer centers, the highest recognition bestowed by the National Cancer Institute, City of Hope is also a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, with research and treatment protocols that advance care throughout the world. City of Hope’s main campus is in Duarte, California, just northeast of Los Angeles, with throughout Southern California. It is ranked as one of "America's Best Hospitals" in cancer by U.S. News & World Report. Founded in 1913, City of Hope is a pioneer in the fields of bone marrow transplantation, diabetes and numerous breakthrough cancer drugs based on technology developed at the institution. For more information about City of Hope, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.
About the Pasadena Tournament of Roses®
The Tournament of Roses is a volunteer organization that hosts America’s New Year Celebration® with the Rose Parade® presented by Honda, the Rose Bowl Game® presented by Northwestern Mutual and a variety of accompanying events. 935 volunteer members of the association will drive the success of 130th Rose Parade themed “The Melody of Life,” on Tuesday, January 1, 2019, followed by the 105th Rose Bowl Game. For more information, visit Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.