acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL)
Spring Break of my second year of medical school marked the beginning of an unexpected chapter in my life. What I had initially brushed off as the flu led me to the emergency room, only to discover that I had acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). At 24, the trajectory of my life drastically shifted, steering me away from my aspirations of orthopedic surgery towards a path I could have never foreseen.
My battle against leukemia spanned 2.5 years and included a life-saving pill called ATRA, or all-trans retinoic acid. However, the fight wasn't just against the illness but against the complexities of navigating a healthcare system while in a vulnerable state. When our insurance company withdrew coverage for the crucial medication, it unveiled the stark reality of the healthcare landscape and the dire need for patient advocacy, especially for young patients dealing with cancer.
My leukemia quickly went into remission, and I turned my energy towards returning to medical school and fulfilling my lifelong dream of becoming a physician. Initially hesitant to consider oncology as my calling, the encouragement from my oncologist eventually planted seeds of realization within me. Surviving cancer provided me with a unique advantage ― an empathetic lens through which to understand and uplift others facing similar experiences. It became apparent that beyond a diagnosis, individuals deserved holistic care and unwavering support.
I must admit, learning what it meant to be a “survivor” was 100 times harder than getting chemotherapy (and that was NOT easy). For patients who transition from treatment to short-term follow-up, the fear of recurrence often rides shotgun. There is a period where you aren’t sure if you CAN or should move forward. All the people who showed up to cheer you on fade back into the background. And you are stuck without a roadmap trying to get “back to normal.” I was fortunate to have found someone my age who was going through a similar experience, and we figured it out together.
While I no longer subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason, my experience steered me toward the path I am on. I dedicated seven rigorous years to training in internal medicine and hematology/medical oncology, becoming triple board certified. Choosing to specialize in lymphoma, I am grateful to work at one of the nation's premier cancer centers where I now have the privilege of paying it forward daily.
My family's experience through my cancer journey resulted in a ripple effect. My father became a board member of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), spurring my campaign for Woman of the Year in Arizona, breaking fundraising records, and shining a spotlight on the underserved adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer community. Seventeen years have passed since my diagnosis, and today, my passion and purpose overlap in how I care for my patients and as I raise awareness for AYAs diagnosed with cancer as the adult medical director of Mayo Clinic's AYA Cancer Program.
Each day, I am reminded of the importance of advocacy, empathy, and whole-person care ― a testament to the resilience and strength that resides within each individual facing cancer. My journey, though unanticipated and challenging, has led me to a place where I stand as a beacon of hope and support for those navigating their own path through the complexities of cancer.