When Armando Villalpando joined the team at City of Hope Orange County in January 2022, he knew it was meant to be. Villalpando is now “NED” (no evidence of disease) after 18 months of treatment for stage 3 colorectal cancer.
After his diagnosis at age 37, Villalpando also contracted COVID-19 during his radiation treatment. It was a time of “anxiety and uncertainty,” but he drew strength from his two closest friends who helped care for him, as well as family members who traveled to see him as often as they could with pandemic restrictions.
During that time, only patients were allowed inside hospitals. His family had to be strategic: They would need to self-isolate, test negative and choose to drive 6-7 hours to minimize any risk of air travel during the height of the pandemic.
His biggest source of inspiration and hope to continue fighting was the littlest member of his family: his nephew Adrian. “He was my reason to push through treatment, no matter how tough it was,” Villalpando said. “I was diagnosed the month before he was born, and I missed his first year of life due to my cancer treatment. I had a lot of guilt initially, but now we are making up for the lost time.”
As Villalpando looks back on his cancer experience, he calls it “one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. No matter how strong you think you are, cancer will break you down and challenge you in unimaginable ways. However, when you finally emerge on the other side, you gain a sense of strength and resilience.” And he has found further healing while working at City of Hope Orange County.
Understanding the importance of “patients first”
Villalpando, a communications associate, appreciates City of Hope Orange County’s commitment to world-class patient care, having experienced radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy as part of his own treatment plan. He knows the importance of specialized cancer care that employs the most advanced therapies.
He is looking forward to the opening of Lennar Foundation Cancer Center at City of Hope Orange County in Irvine this year. The NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center will be the most advanced cancer center in the county, where many of the world’s most distinguished experts in cancer care will continue City of Hope’s legacy of groundbreaking work. It has been designed around the needs of patients and with input from the community.
“The amount of detail and thoughtfulness that went into the design from the very beginning is so meaningful,” he said. “They’ve thought of everything, from bringing in a feng shui expert to create a healing atmosphere, to the use of leading-edge technology and machines for treatment. And the infusion center was placed on the top floor looking out on these beautiful mountains. My view during chemotherapy was a parking lot, so this is much better.”
The cancer center will also offer convenience, which Villalpando says is extremely important to patients during their treatment.
“From the time my cancer was detected to when I was diagnosed, my care team grew from one doctor to six in a matter of days. It’s difficult to navigate all that when they’re not housed in one location,” he said. “There were times when I was too sick to drive — my family is in the Bay Area — and I would break down in my car from exhaustion. Lennar Foundation Cancer Center will be a comprehensive experience for patients, which makes things so much easier for patients and their caregivers.”
A job with purpose
Villalpando calls his role at City of Hope Orange County serendipitous.
“The universe was speaking to me,” he said. “I made it through a tough battle, and now I have a higher purpose to give back. I have the opportunity to be an advocate, which is the greatest gift one can give.”
In that vein, Villalpando wants to remind people of the importance of early detection. Villalpando, who turns 39 in April, is on the younger side for colorectal cancer, but this kind of cancer is on the rise for people younger than 50. He went to his primary care doctor after noticing a common warning sign of colorectal cancer. There was no prior history of colorectal cancer in his family and further genetic testing did not produce a genetic link.
Villalpando’s employer at the time was also supportive. Even though the company was struggling due to the pandemic, it retained Villalpando in a part-time role so he could keep his health insurance. The company was unable to extend a full-time position after his treatment, which led Villalpando to his role at City of Hope Orange County, where he draws on both his personal and professional experience.
That wasn’t his first encounter with City of Hope, however. Villalpando believes strongly in the value of getting a second opinion on a cancer diagnosis, and he sought one at City of Hope in Duarte.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of being your own health advocate. Because City of Hope has such expertise, once they confirmed that my treatment plan was the best course of action and gave it a stamp of approval, I felt comfortable moving forward,” he said. Villalpando couldn’t transition his care, because Duarte was too far away from his home in OC. City of Hope is meeting the needs of patients like him by building its Orange County cancer campus of the future and network of advanced cancer care.
The power of personal experience
Villalpando’s personal experience gives him a profound understanding of the importance of City of Hope Orange County’s mission. “As a cancer survivor, I understand how important it is to see a physician who not only specializes in your type of cancer, but also sees you as a person, not just a patient. It gives you hope moving forward — and this is the singular most important thing to remember, never lose hope,” said Villalpando.
“My wish is that no one else will have to go through what I went through,” he said. “City of Hope Orange County is tirelessly focused on that same goal of eliminating cancer. The sheer scope of the groundbreaking research and the singular focus on cancer and compassionate care make City of Hope unique, and there is an absolute need for that in Orange County.”
Visit www.cityofhope.org/OC to learn more. To make an appointment at any of our four Orange County locations, click here or call:
- Newport Beach Fashion Island: (949) 763-2204
- Newport Beach Lido: (949) 999-1400
- Irvine Sand Canyon: (949) 333-7580
- Huntington Beach: (714) 252-9415