Sergio Ramirez: Beating Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Thanks to Research
When I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2009, I was terrified. I had just turned 27, I had three beautiful boys, a beautiful wife, a job that I loved, and to us, the word “cancer” was a death sentence because we knew nothing about the disease. Participating in a clinical trial testing the drug blinatumomab saved my life. In 30 days blinatumomab did what years of chemotherapy couldn’t: it put me in remission, allowing me to have a stem cell transplant. I am now recuperating and hope to go back to work in the future.
My journey with cancer began just after we returned from a family vacation in Central America. All my family and friends were telling me I was very pale, but I felt fine so I didn’t listen to them or worry. Then, on my 27th birthday, we went to the park to play football with the kids. As soon as I started going for the ball my head started spinning, I got really dizzy. Realizing that something was wrong, I went to my physician the next day.
I told my physician all my symptoms and how everyone had been telling me I didn’t have any color and he said to me, “Sure, you look as white as a sheet of paper.” He immediately ordered some blood tests, and they showed that my hemoglobin levels were half what they should have been. After some more tests I received the diagnosis of ALL.
My treatment started immediately. It was a three-year treatment plan. The first year was very intensive chemotherapy and I practically lived in the hospital. I found this really hard; I couldn’t work, couldn’t go outside and play with my kids. It made me feel like a bird that had been caught and trapped in a cage, but my faith and my family helped me through.
Then came two years of less-intensive chemotherapy.
At the end of the three years I was really happy when I learned that the leukemia was in remission. But it didn’t last long. After 6 months the leukemia came back and it was more aggressive than ever. I immediately started even stronger chemotherapy than before, but after about a month, a bone marrow biopsy showed that the leukemia was still there. In fact, 82 percent of the cells in the biopsy were leukemia cells, which meant that the chemotherapy wasn’t doing anything to the leukemia anymore.
At that point, my doctor told me I had about a 15 percent chance of survival and that my only option was a clinical trial testing blinatumomab. To be in the trial, I had to be treated at City of Hope, and when I first went there I was terrified. Up to then, I had been treated at a small hospital. City of Hope was huge, it was like a small city, but everyone there did an amazing job.
I was also terrified when I learned that I was just the 104th person to receive blinatumomab. I had imagined that there would be thousands of other people in the clinical trial, and to learn that I was just the 104th was scary. But being in the trial saved my life.
The trial lasted only 30 days. I was admitted to the hospital for the first two weeks and then able to go home and spend time with my family, which was huge for me. The only thing was that I had a little pouch that let the medicine run 24 hours a day and I had to go back every two days to have the pouch changed.
After the 30 days, I had a bone marrow biopsy. It took a week to get the results and I was really anxious, I couldn’t sleep, I felt that it was my last chance to survive. But as soon as I saw the doctor I knew the results were good because he had big smile on his face. Learning that there was no sign of leukemia was one of the happiest days of my life. It gave me new hope.
I did another 30 days of blinatumomab and then the focus turned to a stem cell transplant. I was lucky that they found three potential donors so that there was no wait involved. I was in the hospital for 42 days for the transplant and it was tough, but my family was there for me 24 hours a day.
I am now happier than ever before. I appreciate waking up in the morning, hugging my kids, and playing sports with my kids. The whole experience was very tough on them, especially the eldest, but research saved my life and my kids know that Daddy’s back.