by Christina E. Rodríguez Managing Editor
Frank Martinez didn’t have a clue as to what leukemia was, but the word kept popping into his head one morning while shaving. At 27 years old, all Martinez knew was that something was wrong; a bleeding tongue, exhaustion and body aches were not normal for someone his age.
He was diagnosed in the spring of 1994 with leukemia, a cancer of the blood. With his wife of only eight months and five months pregnant, Martinez, now 44, said that his strength was his unborn son. “I wouldn’t let my son be born without a father,” he said.
Among tears and sadness, Martinez was the strength of his family. “I’ve come across many challenges in my life and I’ve never failed once,” he told the doctor. “I’m not about to start now.”
The Gonzalez family found themselves in a similar scenario, except it was their 18-monthold Katie who stopped walking, obtained bruises all over her body and had swollen gums. She was too small to talk and the pediatrician kept saying that she was fine. It wasn’t until her parents took her in for a second opinion that they found out that their baby had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, a rare form of cancer that was already in advanced stages.
“Our lives were flipped upside down,” said Guadalupe Gonzalez, 44, Katie’s father. “We didn’t know what leukemia was.”
As a father, Gonzalez explained how Katie’s illness transformed their household. While Katie and her mother practically lived at Children’s Memorial Hospital, his other children had to be cared for by aunts and their maternal grandmother. Gonzalez continued to work. After a few weeks of high-dosage chemo sessions, Katie’s cancer had gone into remission.
The American Cancer Society found that although Latinos have lower incidence rates for all cancers combined when compared to whites, they have generally higher rates of cancers associated with certain infections such as uterine cervix, liver, gallbladder and stomach cancers. At 20 percent, cancer is the second leading cause of death among Latinos. Leukemia accounts for about four percent of cancer cases in men and is the cause of eight percent of deaths among Latinos. For Latinos, the genetic risk factor is 11.7 leukemia patients per 100,000 people, said Dr. Bobby Chawla, cancer doctor from St. Anthony Hospital.
Martinez has quickly gone into remission after his first rounds of chemotherapy. He had gained 25 pounds and was there for the birth of his son, who is now 18. But a year later, Martinez relapsed. Scared due to the grim 10 percent survival rate, he claimed that it was once again his young family that gave him strength.
The second time around, Martinez allowed for experimental drugs along with the bone marrow transplant he had to endure. Amazingly, Martinez was out of the hospital 10 days later and back to work in 45. “As long as you’re alive, you have a fighting chance,” said Martinez.
Although Katie beat AML a second time, it wasn’t so easy. As a 3-year-old, the search for a bone marrow match was difficult. Of the approximately 10 million marrow donors, about 10 percent of potential donors are Latino compared to the 71 percent of potential white donors, according to Be The Match, the national marrow donor program. Chawla explains that a match usually comes from a worldwide network and allows for the patient to rebuild their immunity to fight the cancerous cells.
None of Katie’s family members matched her marrow and of the register in Illinois, there weren’t any matches either. Katie had to be put on an outof- state register which took about nine months to find a close match, which didn’t take. Fortunately enough, she started growing her own cells back. “Hispanics don’t know about these things and there are hardly any donors,” said Gonzalez. “Latinos don’t know so they don’t do it.”
Because of these incidents, the Gonzalez family has become advocates for marrow donors and umbilical cord blood, which carries stem cells that can be transplanted and can also help patients fight leukemia. “I think doctors and nurses need to explain it more to [Latinos and expectant mothers],” he said.
Due to Martinez’s experiences, the Cuban- American sits on the board for the Leukemia Research Foundation and started the first town hall informational meeting in Spanish. After the first meeting hosted, a man came up to him and thanked him for giving him hope that his child could beat leukemia. “I made a difference in that person’s life,” he said. “That’s the satisfaction that I get.”