Acute lymphocytic leukemia survivor remains ‘a fighter, not a quitter’

When Claudia Pichardo was a child, one of her many doctors told her
she was a fighter, not a quitter.

“Ever since then, that’s been my motto,” she says. In fact, she’s
relied on it throughout her life.

An acute lymphocytic leukemia diagnosis

Claudia’s cancer journey started at age four, when she was diagnosed
with anemia, started bruising easily and began running a fever. Her
mother took her to their local hospital, where a series of tests
eventually brought the diagnosis: acute lymphocytic leukemia.

The doctors immediately referred the family to MD Anderson Children’s
Cancer Hospital
, where Claudia underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, along with several painful
bone marrow biopsies and spinal taps. After four years of treatment,
she went into remission.

Claudia’s acute lymphocytic leukemia recurrence

That was a short-lived break, though. Just two years later, at age
10, Claudia got what she thought was her first period. It lasted for
more than two months. Scared and dreading the idea of going back to
the hospital, she hid what was happening from her family.

When her mother finally found out, she brought Claudia back to MD Anderson, where they got more difficult
news. “They sat my mom and me down and said that it was a tumor that
was spreading all over my body and that they had to do emergency
surgery. If I had come in sooner, they would have just treated it with
radiation and chemotherapy.”

More radiation and surgery followed the surgery. This was perhaps
the toughest time of Claudia’s treatment. She was, she admits, not the
most cooperative patient. More than once she ran and hid when it was
time for a bone marrow biopsy or spinal tap. “The only person who
could find me was my mom,” she recalls.

Ingredients for survivors

Claudia got through those tough years of treatment, thanks to her
determination to fight, along with a few other ingredients that she
recommends for others:

  • Faith: The most important, she says, is her faith,
    which gave and continues to give her the determination to fight
    cancer and live with its aftermath. “First and foremost, have faith
    in God,” she tells others. “He’s the one that’s going to give you
    the strength to fight it and just live it day by day.”
  • Family: Parents, of course, also
    play a huge part in helping their children through diagnosis and
    treatment. While many parents may be frustrated and upset that they
    can’t make everything better for their children, just being there to
    love and support them is incredibly important, Claudia says.
    Supporting children, she notes, includes understanding how close
    young patients can get to people on their care team and helping them
    when that team changes. “You get so attached to the doctors and
    nurses,” she says. “There comes a time when they start to retire,
    and it’s difficult to come again when there’s a new doctor or nurse.
    But sometimes you just have to start a new chapter.”
  • Therapy: Turn to the support programs provided by
    the hospital. Claudia herself saw a social work counselor as a child and
    was given breathing exercises to help her manage the stress of
    treatment. Her younger siblings also got support from a social work
    counselor to help them understand what was happening and why their
    mother spent so much time away from home during Claudia’s
    treatment.

Thanks to all this support, Claudia made it through three more years
of treatment, finally going back into remission when she was 13.

Gratitude for life                                                                    

Claudia is now 43 and cancer continues to have a profound impact on
her life. First and foremost, the disease and its treatments have left
her unable to have children. She’s also dealt with multiple cases of
melanoma on her scalp, which were likely brought
on by the radiation she received as a child. She’s also dealt with osteoporosis, dental issues, fibromyalgia, hypothyroid and
obstructive sleep apnea.

Despite all this, however, she remains determined when it comes to
cancer and its effects on her life.

“I am a fighter, not a quitter!” she says. “I always remember this.
I’ve made it my goal that no matter what, I’ll never give up. I hope
everyone struggling with cancer makes this their goal, too. Don’t give
up. Fight it.”

To request an appointment at MD
Anderson
, please call 1-877-632-6789.