Young Man Embraces Family to Overcome Fear and Illness

Lopez’s wife, Karla Moreno, stood by his side during his treatment.
Lopez’s wife, Karla Moreno, stood by his side during
his treatment.

At the age of 25, Carlos Lopez was given a second chance at life. He is an acute lymphocytic leukemia survivor, husband and student.

In the Hispanic community, one out of two men, and one out of three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.

About 16 percent of the 317 million U.S. population identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino in 2010. Lopez was diagnosed with cancer in April 2008 and received a cord blood transplant in September of that year.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia is a condition in which too many immature white blood cells are found in the blood and bone marrow.

A cord blood transplant can repair and replace the damage and offer the patient a new lease on life.

“Cord blood” is a term used to describe the blood in the umbilical cord and the discarded placenta after a baby is born, which is used for medical therapies.

Stem cells within the cord blood are used to stimulate the patient’s body into producing new healthy blood cells, which helps the body better fight infection.

“I was 20 years old when I was diagnosed,” said Lopez. “I still remember the moment the doctors told me I had cancer. I was scared.”

Lopez said the disease could be classified as low risk, or high risk.

He was in his second year of his college education when he was diagnosed and had to withdraw. “I felt that my life was on pause for so long,” Lopez recalled.

He was hospitalized for five months and was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. His first treatment involved four days of high dose chemotherapy followed by a few weeks of monitoring while his blood counts dropped and then rose back to normal.

“It sucked losing my hair but my parents, grandparents, uncles and cousins also shaved their head,” Lopez said.

“My family never left my side. Thanks to them I didn’t fall into depression and felt as if we were fighting cancer together,” he added.

He said he feels his experience was a huge eye opener for his entire family because they realized health was more valuable than owning everything in the world.

Five months after his diagnosis, Lopez received a cord blood transplant from the umbilical cord of a baby girl after she was born from Australia. It was located through an international blood bank, he said.

The doctors said there was “a 60 percent chance that the transplant will save my life,” Lopez said. Success depended on whether his body accepted the new cells from the transplant or rejected them.

The transplant restored his ability to produce healthy blood cells, some of which are essential to the immune system’s ability to fight infections.

“If it wasn’t for that baby girl I wouldn’t be here right now,” Lopez said. “I am blessed to have given a second chance at life.”

His life remained on pause for two more years after he was discharged from the hospital and placed on maintenance treatment with oral medications.

For those first two years he was unable to work or attend school because his immune system was weak, he said. If he went out in public he had to wear a mask to prevent infections.

“It was frustrating not being able to work, go to school or do anything,” recalled Lopez.

“Just thinking that the people I went to high school with had already finished their bachelors degree would kill me.”

Two years later he returned to San Jose State University to continue his education—he switched majors from Kinesiology to Nursing.

“I want to give back to others the phenomenal patient care I received from nurses and doctors,” says Lopez.

“Even if I gave my entire life that wouldn’t be enough,” he adds. “I don’t think I will ever be able to pay back what they did for me,” Lopez said.

He recently married Karla Moreno, his high school sweetheart whom, he said, played a major role in his battle with cancer.

Lopez is a Bay Area native, and spent some of his childhood in Oakland and San Leandro. He currently lives in Concord.