Dear Cancer Support Community Arizona (CSCAZ) family,
My name is Alexandra Anastasio, I’m the Recruitment Chair for Cancer Support Community Arizona’s Young Professionals Council (YPC). This month we celebrate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Blood Cancer Awareness Month both of which are deeply personal to me. You see, when I was 15 years old I was diagnosed with Leukemia.
At 31 years old, I am a childhood cancer survivor and a blood cancer survivor.
One day, I noticed I had a lump behind my left ear. It didn’t hurt, and I didn’t feel sick, so I didn’t bother saying anything about it to my parents. A few months later, I noticed it grew larger. I decided it was time to tell my mom. She had my pediatrician examine the lump which included blood work that revealed nothing out of the ordinary. My mother took me to see an Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) doctor who suggested, as a precaution, the lump be removed and biopsied. Two weeks after the removal, we returned to receive my test results and were told the biopsy revealed I possibly had lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system).
My mother began crying.
The next 24 hours were a bit of blur. I was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital where they completed a bone marrow aspiration and spinal tap. The results confirmed Leukemia, not lymphoma. By 6:00 p.m. that night, I had surgery to insert my catheter and by 11:00 p.m. I started chemotherapy. This happened four days before my 16th birthday. I was in-patient for the next 3 days.
I had treatment on my Sweet 16 but at least it was out-patient.
When it came time to return to high school, I told my parents I wanted to be home schooled but at the insistence of my doctor, I returned to Xavier College Preparatory. I remember my first day back, one of my classmates told me how much she liked my straight hair (vs. my normal curly hair) to which I revealed it was a wig. Suddenly, everyone knew who I was, knew I had cancer and EVERYONE started being overly nice to me. It was an odd feeling.
I was now the “girl with cancer”.
My twin sister was placed on the same schedule as me so if I missed class she could easily bring me my homework. She also received most of the inquiries about me because a lot of people, including my own friends, didn’t know how to talk to me. The cancer made it uncomfortable for them. Ultimately, staying in school was the best decision I could have made because it was the one “normal” in my life despite spending more than half of my junior year at home or in the nurse’s office.
After 23 months of treatment and at the start of my freshman year at the University of Arizona, I was finished with treatment, but the side effects were still impacting my life. The summer before my senior year of high school, I discovered the steroids I received during treatment had caused avascular necrosis (cut-off of blood supply) in my hip bone and caused me tremendous pain. For a while, I walked with crutches then was placed in a wheelchair. Once I was able to get my pain under control I had to walk with a quad-cane for the next 2 years which meant I started my freshman year at UofA with my cane. It was terribly inconvenient, but I made the best of a bad situation. I even decorated my cane for the holidays and for Christmas I placed lights on it. There was even a time when my cane was mistaken for a sorority initiation. I’d have to explain “No, this is actually a cane that I need”. It was really embarrassing but fortunately, through UofA’s Disability Resource Center, a golf cart was assigned to me and I would be picked-up and taken to and from my classes. This was particularly helpful when leaving my dorm for my first class of the day because my dorm was a couple of blocks south of campus. Oh, and by the way, my dorm was more like an apartment. I was unable to live in a regular dorm because communal living was not a safe option for my weakened immune system. Again, my sister was my saving grace because if I was too weak to walk to the dining hall for dinner, she’d walk to campus bring me back dinner.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I had my hip replaced and the pain from the avascular necrosis was gone.
I continued my education with the pursuit of being a child life specialist. I interned at the University Medical Center in Tucson (and, volunteered outside of my internship) and eventually passed my child life exam. Unfortunately, this career that I had studied for and felt passionate about was no longer an option for me. Sadly, I learned that I could not do the job because I could not disconnect my personal cancer journey from the children currently going the journey themselves. You see, a lot of the children I was working with received bone marrow transplants due to a cancer diagnosis and more than a few lost their lives.
I’d ask myself “Why am I still here? Why am I allowed to live but this child with my ex
act same diagnosis is dying?”. It was very difficult for me, but I knew the right decision was to pursue another line of work.
During my time at the hospital, I had worked with children with developmental disabilities and loved it. I realized my calling was to be a Special Education teacher. I returned to school but this time at Grand Canyon University to receive my master’s degree in special education. I’m proud to say I’m now a Special Education elementary school teacher in Phoenix and despite the struggles we teachers face, I’m so honored to work with my students and see their progress throughout the school year.
My life today? I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful for my parents, sisters and friends. I’m grateful to have a meaningful career. But, my cancer journey has never stopped. I struggle with anxiety especially around the time of my annual check-ups. The reality is, the cancer can return, and that prospect is scary, but I do my best to stay optimistic and I cope by trying to serve others.
I’ve always enjoyed volunteering and I knew I wanted to volunteer for an organization that worked with kids with cancer. When I returned home from college for my summer breaks, I’d volunteer at Cancer Support Community Arizona (then known as The Wellness Community-Arizona). I was able to work on Teen Pamper Day and a few of the game nights. I absolutely loved working with the teens and I found myself reflecting on my own teen years.
I wish I knew about CSCAZ!
I wish I knew they had a teen and family program. I wish I had been able to connect with other teens with cancer. I’m so incredibly thankful for my amazing support system—family, friends and school—but the truth is, they did not know what it was like to have cancer let alone a teenager with cancer. It would have been nice to share that experience with someone my age going through it as well. I know it would have been helpful. This is why CSCAZ is so meaningful to me.
As one of the original members of Cancer Support Community Arizona’s Young Professionals Council (YPC), I think the YPC is a great opportunity for young people to do something special beyond their career.
We get so caught up in our own lives that it’s easy to forget there are people in need. Being on the YPC gives me and the rest of the council the ability to give back to our community. It’s rewarding to see the positive effects of CSCAZ’s programs. And, I appreciate that most funds received go directly to the emotional support programs offered to anyone impacted by cancer. I love that CSCAZ extends their services beyond the person diagnosed. They support family and friends impacted by cancer. I know from experience, it’s as though your entire family is diagnosed with cancer. My Leukemia changed everything for everyone in my family.
I love my role as the YPC Recruitment Chair! I feel like it’s the perfect role for me. I love welcoming the new members and thanking them for committing to CSCAZ and to our council because for me, it’s more than supporting a good cause, it’s personal. I want every new member to know they’re valued and they’re critical to our success. In addition to overseeing our new member on-boarding process, I love leading our volunteer efforts. Volunteering allows us to have direct contact with the program participants and that connection is why I serve on the YPC and why I want to do my best to support such an amazing organization.
During event season, when we’re requesting support via sponsorship, ticket sales and raffle prizes for Trivia Night (the YPC’s signature fundraiser) I’m willing to work that much harder to ensure success because I know first-hand how critical CSCAZ is to so many adults, teenagers and children impacted by cancer.
Thank YOU for supporting CSCAZ’s 100+ monthly cancer education and support programs.
Thank YOU for supporting CSCAZ’s Teen and Family programs.
Thank YOU for the privilege of participation and support of CSCAZ.