‘My cancer diagnosis: What I wish I’d known’ – Christine Pechera
One in a series of stories asking former patients to reflect upon their experience …
Christine Pechera still finds it hard to watch a 2006 YouTube video imploring people to help a young woman searching for a bone marrow donor. “My heart breaks for the poor girl,” she says. “And then I remember: that girl is me.”
The filmmaker was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2002 and underwent chemotherapy, radiation and an autologous transplant (a procedure using one's own stem cells). She returned to health, but then relapsed in 2005. When the Be the Match registry failed to turn up a donor who would be compatible with Pechera’s Filipino ancestry, her friends helped her produce the recruitment video.
Her search for a match was even featured on a “Nightline” segment chronicling the need for more minority donors.
Finally, a Chinese man living in Hong Kong – who had never seen these videos – was identified as a match. In 2006, 37-year-old Kam Tsuen “Kent” Wong donated the stem cells that saved Pechera’s life.
The two met in 2008 during City of Hope’s annual bone marrow transplant reunion, which was documented by KABC-TV. "I can’t get over thinking that it’s his blood flowing through my veins; it’s his marrow in my bones,” Pechera said. “This is the guy that saved my life.”
Pechera continues to flourish. She recently completed a master’s degree in fine arts from Pepperdine University, emphasizing writing for screen and television, and also became engaged. In fact, her fiancé recently surprised her by nominating her for a wardrobe makeover that evolved into a life makeover on a new Yahoo Web series – aptly named – “Ultimate Surprises.”
We asked Pechera to look back at the time of her diagnosis and to ask herself what she knows now that she wishes she'd known then. What wisdom, soothing words, practical tips or just old-fashioned advice would she give her newly diagnosed self?
1. Be an active patient. Communicate with your doctor. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Be honest with how you are feeling, both physically and emotionally. Don't be a hero. You are the center of your medical team.
2. Get an iPod. Listen to your favorite music to soothe your soul. Take your music with you to your treatment days. Let music relax you while sitting in the waiting room. Let it give you a cathartic release when you need to express yourself. Music will transport you outside the cancer bubble, and give you respite when you need it.
3. Beware of strangers who approach you with "miracle" cures such as exotic juices or fringe medicine. These vultures take advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable and desperate. Follow your gut, not your fear, in choosing what complementary medicine to utilize during treatment.
4. When loved ones deluge you with too much information to possibly sift through, such as unsolicited advice, self-help books, alternative treatment pamphlets, links to endless websites, etc., take a breath and know that they love you and are only trying to help. Just because someone does not show support in the way YOU want them to, doesn't mean they do not care. Friends and family often feel helpless and don't know what else to do. Instead give them something constructive to do, such as "Could you look up support groups in my area?" Or "Would you mind picking up groceries for me?"
5. When doctors alert you to the side effects of treatment, you have to take them seriously and not ignore them, thinking it won't happen to you. Pay attention to the threat to your fertility instead of being in denial about it. Explore your options and take steps before it is too late.
6. Give yourself time to heal. There's no use in rushing back to "normal life" if you end up tripping yourself back into the hospital with infections, fatigue or other medical complications stemming from reckless impatience. Your body is going through a lot. Get lots of rest and give your body space and time to return to normal.
For more about bone marrow transplants, please visit City of Hope's Department of Hematology & Hemat0poietic Cell Transplantation online.