It started with a numbness in my left arm and an unrelenting husband who refused to accept my blasé attitude about my body changes. Over a course of several months, I noticed that my left arm was getting weaker and I was unable to lift at my normal capacity.
I attributed it to sleeping incorrectly or simply being tired — but my husband Jorge insisted that I see a doctor. I finally obliged. My primary care doctor, Dr. William McCunniff, immediately began ordering tests for the shortness of breath and chest pain I had also been experiencing. He ordered several follow-ups with specialists and I went home with new information that didn’t seem too scary.
The fear didn’t kick in until the following afternoon. On July 9, 2019, a month shy of my 29th birthday, I began experiencing chests pains and dizziness. My husband was at work but convinced me to go the ER and I am so grateful that he did. Little did I know, that night would change my life forever.
Related: Why cancer hates fighters like me
How my cancer story began
I was standing in line to register at the ER when everything faded to black. I felt dizzy and fell to the ground. They rushed me to triage and performed an EKG. It was negative for a heart attack, which felt like a win to me.
I was escorted back to the waiting room and began to debate whether I should leave without being seen. A heart attack was my biggest fear and since my EKG showed that wasn’t happening, I felt I could go home and follow up with my primary care doctor in the morning.
As I stood up to let the receptionist know I would be leaving, I heard my name called. God sent the nurse just in time.
The doctors ran every test imaginable to check my heart and lungs. Blood was drawn and all of my labs resulted normal. The emergency medicine physician, Dr. Richard Whitworth, entered my room and told me I would probably be able to go home soon. I was optimistic. Everything seemed fine and my test results showed there was nothing to worry about.
At least that’s what I thought, until the doctor reentered the room and told me that my arm “looks weird.” In that moment, I never considered cancer or the possibility that it was anything serious. He ordered a dedicated x-ray for my left arm and I felt confident I had overreacted by coming to the ER.
As a nurse, there is an underlying knowledge we hold that non-medical professionals may not know. There are little things other people may not be aware of that are usually a sign that something may be wrong. It is with this knowledge that I realized something was definitely wrong.
Dr. Whitworth reentered my room, this time with the nurse. His face looked solemn and I knew the news must be serious. He asked me if I had ever broken my arm, to which I replied “no.” He pulled up my x ray, showing me my healthy right arm and then my left. He went on to explain that the hollow image I was seeing was indicative of some type of bone cancer.
And just like that, my entire world was turned upside down. I hadn’t come in for my arm, I had come in for my chest. How did I get here? How could I have bone cancer without having any pain?
After several follow-up visits, scans, blood work, a bone biopsy and lots of waiting, I received the dreaded phone call. My biopsy was positive for a plasmacytoma.
Having worked in the Baylor Scott & White McClinton Cancer Center as a radiation nurse, I knew what to expect for my treatment. I began receiving radiation but had to undergo one more biopsy, a bone marrow biopsy taken from my right hip. If the results were negative for cancer, I would continue high dose radiation five days a week for five weeks. If they were positive, the test would prove I had multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer most commonly diagnosed in men aged 60 and older. The dosage of the radiation would lessen and I would also need chemotherapy.
On August 23rd, I found out that I indeed had multiple myeloma, an incredibly rare diagnosis at my age. It was just three days after my 29th birthday, which I celebrated by receiving my first radiation treatment.
I was also in the middle of planning my wedding ceremony. We cancelled our honeymoon and held onto hope that this too would pass. I knew the chemotherapy and radiation would drain me, but I continued caring for patients full-time until my oncologist advised me otherwise.
In May 2020, I underwent a stem cell transplant, also called a bone marrow transplant, to replace my bone marrow with healthy stem cells harvested from my own body. I received high-dose chemotherapy before receiving my harvested stem cells and was discharged after a very scary two-week hospital stay. I faced a few strange side effects, but my care team was by my side every step of the way. I feel so grateful for each doctor, nurse and staff member who helped my family navigate this time dealing with cancer in the middle of a pandemic.
Choosing joy after multiple myeloma
It has now been about six months since my transplant and I am getting better and stronger every day. I returned to the McClinton Cancer Center in August and rang the bell to celebrate being cancer-free! I am back to working and am currently awaiting my second round of immunizations. My memory cells were wiped out with the transplant, so I have to receive all of my childhood immunizations again.
This journey has taught me that there is life beyond a scary diagnosis. Choosing joy even in the darkest, scariest times can be some of the best medicine you will ever receive.
Life after cancer so far has been interesting, to say the least. Navigating my “new body” during a pandemic has created some challenges but overall, I feel that this is a new beginning for me. I am still adjusting to the fact that I cannot physically do everything that I was able to do before the stem cell transplant. I still get tired very easily and have learned to slow down because my body is not ready to go full speed just yet. Despite occasional fatigue, I feel that my life is very full. I have a lot of people who love and care about me and a lot of people I am able to encourage simply by sharing my story.
Related: Why cancer hates warriors like me
Cancer hates me because I have the faith and strength to fight every hurdle it throws my way. I relied on my faith in God to get me through the nausea, the neuropathy and the near death experiences. One of my favorite scriptures is Jeremiah 29:11, a verse that has become a comfort to me during this journey — I know God has a plan for me and it has given me hope and a future.
To anyone facing a cancer diagnosis, I’ll say this: Cancer can be scary, but living a life afraid is not living. Take each day as it comes and don’t worry about what you can’t control. Learning to rejoice in the small things creates a sense of peace in the chaos of blood draws, scans, appointments and treatment. Whoever you are, you’re more than just a diagnosis.
This blog post was contributed by Amber Hernandez, BSN, RN-BC. Cancer hates optimists like Amber because they refuse to lose their joy. Discover more reasons why Cancer Hates Us.