For inspiring cancer survivor, it’s 1st and goal

Israel, a standout athlete, spent his junior year of high school fighting cancer and returned home just before the onset of COVID-19. Now a senior, he’s working to get back on the football field and grateful to have his cancer journey behind him.

Every morning, 17-year-old Israel begins his day by lifting weights and, on alternate days, adding in a two-mile run.

Then, it’s time for a hearty breakfast fit for any teen bulking up for football season – four or five eggs, bacon and two slices of toast.

Israel Escobedo, a high school senior, then flips open his laptop for virtual classes.

In the afternoon, he again pumps iron to add muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame.

Israel, a middle linebacker, is preparing himself for a 10-game season that may or may not start in December, depending on COVID-19 guidelines.

That he’s in such great shape – just 15 pounds short of his usual weight of 200 – is something to behold, considering that earlier this year Israel underwent a bone marrow transplant (BMT) after being diagnosed with high-risk B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Israel’s journey has been one of baby steps, hurdles and at times, low points.

But through it all, his clinicians at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC say Israel has exhibited grace, kindness and a positive attitude, despite the fear and pain that comes with any cancer diagnosis.

Israel saw his grandfather Jose battle prostate cancer for eight years before he passed away several years ago. So, when Israel found out last year that he had leukemia, he was floored.

“Honestly, I was just scared,” Israel says. “I’ve always had big goals and plans. I was always outgoing and healthy. I didn’t know what to expect.”

But how Israel handled his diagnosis and subsequent BMT – a process that can bring with it a grueling recovery process, with a brand-new and vulnerable immune system, especially for the first 100 days – has inspired his team at CHOC.

“My goodness,” says Miranda Wichelns, a social worker who helped care for Israel. “We’re all kind of in awe of him.”

A shining example

Israel was not able to attend the first day of in-person varsity football practice this season, but his pediatric oncologist Dr. Rishikesh Chavan hopes that Israel may be able to practice with his teammates soon.

For Dr. Chavan, who also serves as director of CHOC’s Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, Israel’s excellent recovery from his BMT is a shining example of how most BMT patients eventually resume normal lives.

“A lot of people think of a transplant as a big, bad thing,” Dr. Chavan says.

With the proper medical care, it’s not.

“When you look at Israel today,” Dr. Chavan says, “you would not be able to tell that he had a bone marrow transplant just eight months ago.”

A perfect match in the family

Back in August 2019, Israel wasn’t feeling his usual healthy self. He found it difficult keeping down food.

His dermatologist, who had been checking Israel’s blood monthly because of the acne medication he had been prescribed, noticed an alarmingly low number of white blood cells.

Israel’s primary care physician was also very concerned and referred him to CHOC.

On Israel’s first night at CHOC, his child life specialist Carly helped ease his jitters.

The next day, pediatric oncologist Dr. Carol Lin diagnosed Israel with ALL.

Israel underwent several rounds of chemotherapy before Dr. Chavan and Dr. Lin, along with the leukemia team, determined he needed a BMT.

Israel receiving treatment at CHOC
Israel receiving treatment at CHOC

The actual day of BMT is relatively simple, akin to receiving a blood transfusion – but a lot goes on before and after the procedure.

Israel needed a donor and his sister Genesis turned out to be a perfect match.

“I just didn’t want to sit around and see him suffer,” says Genesis, who was 14 at the time of the transplant. “It was good to know I could actually help him.”

Israel is forever grateful for his sister.

“I love her,” he says, adding with a laugh, “but there are days I can’t stand her.”

Undergoing a bone marrow transplant

 The process of donating her blood-forming cells – or blood stem cells – for transplantation wasn’t too painful, Genesis says.

After a BMT, a recipient’s immune system becomes like that of a newborn baby. The immune system needs to develop and be cared for to keep toxicities from wreaking havoc on the body.

Dr. Chavan uses the metaphor of gardening to describe a BMT.

“It’s like taking a seed from a plant and then replanting it somewhere else,” he says. “Think about the cancer cells as weeds in your garden. Before the transplant, through a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, you are not only able to get rid of the weeds, but you are also preparing the soil. Then you plant the new seed.”

Keeping a positive attitude throughout treatment

 A common complication following a BMT is Graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD), in which the recipient’s new immune system, which is actually the donor’s immune system, may attack the recipient’s body. Symptoms include rash, mouth ulcers, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Steroids and other immunosuppressive medications are used to treat the condition while preventing infections.

Israel had a moderate case of GVHD but bounced right back.

His lowest point, he said, happened when he returned home from CHOC just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in mid-March. The emotional toll of his journey finally sunk in, and it took time to adjust to a new normal.

“But I got through it and I feel amazing now,” he says. “I put myself to God, and He got me through it.”

Israel near the ocean

Israel credits his close family — Genesis, his father Juan, his mother Marcia and older brother Joshua — and his team at CHOC for helping him get through his medical crisis.

“They have some of the most amazing people there,” Israel said of CHOC. “They made me feel like I was at home. They’re great people.”

CHOC staffers noted how polite Israel was throughout his treatment and BMT recovery.

Monika Benson, a registered nurse, was Israel’s post-transplant case coordinator.

“He’s an incredible young man,” Benson says. “His outlook during this has been amazing. He’s one of the sweetest kids I’ve met. A lot of bone marrow transplant patients get beat down. He had his down moments, but he remained positive through it all.”

Benson noted that BMT patients go through a lot of social isolation. Most can’t even leave their hospital room for 10 to 20 days post-transplant while their new immune system is at its most vulnerable level.

“Going into the procedure positive and coming out of the transplant positive can make a big difference,” Benson says.

Israel says with his positive attitude, he was simply demonstrating lessons he’s been taught since day one.

“My whole life, I’ve always been taught manners and to respect my elders. I must respect others so I can be respected,” Israel says. “And I’m a very positive and energetic person. I’m always moving with a smile on my face every day.”

Israel with a CHOC nurse
Israel with one of his CHOC nurses Alex, in a photo taken before the COVID-19 pandemic

The importance of wearing a mask

 Living through a pandemic – while recovering from cancer treatment and a BMT – has its challenges, but one thing Israel was already used to doing even before COVID-19 hit was wearing a mask.

He recalls one day earlier this year, when he was watching his teammates practice amid his chemotherapy treatment leading up to his transplant. He didn’t wear a face covering that day and got so sick he had to be hospitalized.

“I believe masks are a big help,” he says.

Masks have always been a common recommendation and practice for post-BMT patients at least in initial days post-transplant.

Looking ahead

Before he was diagnosed, Israel was looking forward to playing football in college or possibly joining the military.

Now, he wants to become a nurse.

“A lot of nurses helped me get through this,” he says. “I want to return the favor and help kids that are going through the same thing that I went through.”

Learn more about the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC Children's

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How a Bone Marrow Transplant Can Save Someone’s Life

Every three minutes, someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer, like leukemia or lymphoma. As many as seventy percent of these patients don’t have a compatible match in their family, and must hope to find an unrelated donor. You can help these patients increase their odds by joining the Be The Match Registry®, an international registry of potential matches for those seeking a bone marrow transplant. Today, meet two CHOC Children’s patients who have benefited from a bone marrow transplant.

Emma-bone-marrow-transplant-story

Emma, age 23

In the summer of 2017, I went from being a healthy 21-year-old college athlete to an acute myeloid leukemia patient in less than a week’s time. To say it happened fast is an understatement. The doctors told me I needed a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible. Dozens of my family members got tested to be a donor, but because it needed to happen quickly, we used my dad. I received his stem cells on October 3, 2017. The procedure was difficult, but my medical team and the hospital staff were incredible. The oncology floor was like a huge family made up of patients, caretakers, survivors, supporters, and many others who had been touched by cancer. Thankfully, my husband was there every step of the way. By March 2018, I was able to move back to my hometown and resume college online. I was able to reclaim my life and feel hope for my future. Right now, I’m three weeks away from the one-year mark. I feel good, and I’m so grateful for my bone marrow transplant. It gave me back my life and the best gift of all: time.

Zaiden-bone-marrow-transplant

Zaiden, age 3

I was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia when I was 2 years old. Thankfully my parents took me to an amazing hospital, CHOC Children’s. Everyone is amazing there! I started heavy chemotherapy, and everything was going well. Unfortunately, I relapsed after nine months of treatment. It was after this I had my first bone marrow transplant, with my dad as my donor. Again, I was kind of back to my normal life when I relapsed again at the six-month mark. After this we tried Car T Cell therapy, but I again relapsed after nine months. So, in April 2018 I had my second bone marrow transplant and this time it was my sister who got to be my donor. These treatments were not easy, but I have been living my best life since then.

I am extremely lucky that I was able to be matched not once but twice with people in my family as my donors. A lot of kids are not as lucky and have to wait a long time to find a match. Because of my treatments it inspired my parents to register with Be the Match in hopes they could do the same thing for someone else that saved my life.

How a Bone Marrow Transplant Changed My Life

Every three minutes, someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer, like leukemia or lymphoma. As many as seventy percent of these patients don’t have a compatible match in their family, and must hope to find an unrelated donor. You can help these patients increase their odds by joining the Be The Match Registry®, an international registry of potential matches for those seeking a bone marrow transplant. Today, meet six CHOC Children’s patients who have benefited from a bone marrow transplant.

Diego, age 23

I was diagnosed with pre-B Cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia on January 11th, 2009. Thankfully, I landed in a great hospital that quickly gave me hope and strength to fight. Everything was going perfect. I received one year of intense chemo and about two years of remission chemo. Unfortunately, I relapsed one month before finishing my treatment. I hated the fact that I’d have to start from zero with a whole new treatment that included radiation. I relapsed a second time a few months after receiving radiation. I would see and meet other patients who were diagnosed and finished with treatment in only a couple months. When I talked to my doctor about what the next step was, I was happy because I would be receiving the same treatment as the other patients – I would be receiving a bone marrow transplant. Even though it is a quicker treatment, it is also tougher. The first step was finding a matching donor.

I was very lucky that I found a donor in my family; my sister was a 100 percent match! Finding a donor that matches 100 percent means that your risk of side effects is lower. It was just before Christmas that we got news of the match, so on Christmas Day I gave her a card asking for one more gift – if she could be my bone marrow donor. That Christmas, the whole family cried tears of happiness.

bone marrow transplant

Tori, age 21

I have been a patient at CHOC since I was 19, when I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. After my first round of chemo, my doctors determined that receiving a bone marrow transplant would give me the best chance for remission and lessen the chance for relapse. With three possible matches found on the registry, the first person my doctors called backed out. The second person they called said yes but unfortunately the hospital they went to have tests done at made a mistake on a time-sensitive lab that would have to be redone. My doctor didn’t want me to have to wait any longer to undergo a treatment that could possibly save my life. On April 12, 2016, I received a bone marrow transplant with my dad as my donor. I have been in remission ever since!

bone marrow transplant

Aric, age 25

My bone marrow transplant was on April 14, 2017 as part of leukemia treatment. It was kind of difficult, but I was always positive and kept busy by reading, playing video games, and watching my favorite Netflix show, Stranger Things. My family would come over to play games and bring me fresh clothes. My friends would come over and chill with me, bringing things I needed to make me forget about being in the hospital. They also brought my TV from home so I could play my Xbox better. The first month hit me hard with fevers and vomiting, and it’s weird to say, but I got used to that. Now, I have passed the 100-day mark and I’m so happy and I feel better. I just need to follow my doctors’ orders and I will be okay.

bone marrow transplant

Aileen, age 22

I got diagnosed with sickle cell anemia shortly after birth. For years, I was in and out of the hospital due to my pain crises and other health-related problems. Over time all the complications built up and my bones and organs started getting damaged due to excessive amounts of medications, narcotics and blood transfusions. The doctors told me as I grew older that I would have more complications. When I turned 18, they insisted I get a bone marrow transplant. At first, I didn’t want one because I was afraid of chemo and all the obstacles it would bring. As time went on, my health got worse and my pain crises were more frequent. I would be hospitalized for weeks at a time and then once I got discharged, I’d only be home for maybe a week or two before I had to be admitted again. Once I turned 20, I made the decision to go through the transplant process. I was lucky enough that my brother turned out to be my perfect match. On August 26, 2015, I received my brother’s bone marrow. I am now cured and am happier and healthier than ever. I have not had a pain crisis since! Getting my bone marrow transplant was the best decision I’ve ever made!

bone marrow transplant

Ralph, age 24

I am a two-time cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient. I was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 14, and relapsed with secondary acute myeloid leukemia at age 19. As soon as my treatment began I was told I was going to need a bone marrow transplant. The bone marrow I received came from the umbilical cord blood of two different European children, not from a single donor’s bone marrow. This experience has taught me that even though the donation pool is great and diverse, there is still more we can be doing to help save lives, not only domestically but also overseas.

bone marrow transplant

Kamron, age 20

My bone marrow donor saved my life! I’ve been in remission ever since I received my donor’s bone marrow. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 17 years old and kept relapsing post-treatment. It wasn’t until I was transplanted with a new bone marrow that I’ve been in remission the longest. Please register today and you could help save someone’s life!

Learn more about the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at CHOC Children's

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