Connecting Through Common Challenges
Chris Bustos, a pre-med student at Texas A & M – San Antonio, has big goals for his future that include someday pursuing a career in pediatrics or pathology. Only 2 ½ years ago, Chris was finishing treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) that struck when he was 16. “I was shocked about my diagnosis,” recalls Chris, now 22.“I don’t think I really began to accept it until I had been in treatment about three months.” As a football player during his junior year of high school, Chris began to experience troubling symptoms such as joint pain, extreme fatigue, bruising, and weight loss. After two doctors dismissed the symptoms as nothing serious, a visit to the ER at Methodist Children’s Hospital in San Antonio finally led to a diagnosis. “They did bloodwork, and within an hour I was diagnosed with stage 3 ALL and admitted to hospital for treatment,” recalls Chris.
Now fully recovered and in good health, Chris is a member of the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Support Group, which is a vital component of the AYA Foundation San Antonio, an organization founded by his pediatric oncologist at Methodist Children’s, Dr. Jaime Estrada. AYA Foundation San Antonio provides economic, educational, and psychosocial support to young cancer patients aged 15-39, and their families, who are in active treatment or post-therapy survivorship. “Dr. Estrada and I have stayed in touch over the years,” Chris explains. “As a cancer survivor, I believe in AYA’s mission and look forward to helping others by serving as a youth mentor.”
During a month-long hospitalization after his diagnosis, Chris received several rounds of chemotherapy and continued treatment three times a week at an outpatient clinic. “I went into remission after three months but had to continue treatment for 3 ½ years to prevent relapse,” he explains. Chris says he believes sharing the challenges he experienced during treatment can give hope and encouragement to other young cancer patients. “During most of my treatment, I struggled to accept my diagnosis,” he says, also emphasizing that losing his hair due to chemotherapy made him feel self-conscious. Chris, who has a younger sister and brother, says he is grateful for the support he received from his family during treatment, especially his mom. “She was my rock, though she admits now that the demands of helping me through treatment caused her to feel guilty that she couldn’t give as much attention to my siblings.” Chris says this is a common dynamic that most cancer patients and their families do not talk about. “That’s why AYA’s mission of supporting the whole family is so important – when a family member has cancer, it impacts every member of the family, not just the one who is sick.”
In his role as an AYA mentor, Chris says he hopes to connect with young cancer patients as someone who understands the challenges they are facing. “It was hard to talk to my high school friends about what I was experiencing with fighting cancer and going through treatment because we were in two different worlds,” he recalls. “They would visit and talk about what was going on at school – but I couldn’t relate to that anymore.” Chris also says he didn’t connect with most of the other male cancer patients at the hospital because most were either younger or older than he was. “I hope to be able to help the people I mentor understand what to expect during treatment and just be a friend.” Talking to someone who understands, Chris says, is one of the most empowering things for someone going through cancer.