Balancing College with Chemotherapy

With his kind face, quiet demeanor and soft-spoken ways, one might never guess the determination and strength at the core of Jose Guevara. Jose is young, just 19 years old, but having already battled Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia twice, he is wise. And, despite his twice monthly chemotherapy treatments, Jose is happily back at Cal State Los Angeles, carrying 12 units after his cancer relapse forced him to take a year-long break from his studies.

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Jose Guevara ~ 19 years old ~ Two-time A.L.L. survivor (ages 15 and 19)

Sophomore, California State University Los Angeles ~ Studying Political Science and Spanish

“There are certain times when you have to step back and be ok with that. You have to take care of your health. School is going to be there, it will wait for you.”

Reprinted here with permission, are excerpts from Jose’s story in his own words, written in January 2014.  

I was not able to cry when the doctor told me about my condition. It was not until I was alone that the magnitude of the news hit me and I cried uncontrollably for the rest of the night. During my second semester as an eleventh grader I received news that made every single problem I had ever complained about very insignificant. What started as a six-hour wait in the emergency room turned into a 9-month stay in the hospital. I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I felt like life had left my body and became an empty shell in bed. I became a statistic. It was horrible. I had no control of my body and was even more dependent on my parents than I have ever been. I tried to keep myself together. I always had a positive attitude on life despite the challenges placed in front of me, but this time as hard as I tried I could not get the courage to get myself together.

I can recall many times not being able to get up and feeling so weak that all I wanted to do was sleep….I was really tired of not being able to hold down a meal, and many may think otherwise but the loss of hair on a male is still a big deal, at least it was for me. When I would look in the mirror I could tell the difference, I saw a Jose I did not know but it was whom I had become because of the treatment and that killed me inside. My smile would rarely come even though I  must admit the nurses did their best to keep me positive.

The moment that changed everything for me was when my dad talked to me and said, “son as much as I love you if you give up now you might as well tell all these people to stop wasting their time, and tell me to start planning your funeral. Is this how you really want to end your last days on earth, in a hospital bed?” I was dumbfounded. I held back my tears, I hugged him and knew from that day on I had to fight. I pushed myself to return to school only after a few short months off the intense chemotherapy and successfully completed with all A’s my course work by the end of the summer. I knew at this point that I am capable of overcoming any obstacles and my senior year I was ready for the challenge of Advance Placement classes, and college. I applied to four CSU schools and had no issue getting in, until the cost of school came in was when I realized I could only afford CSULA. However CSULA has been the best choice I could ever have made. I have been successful thus far academically at this school. I have finished all my remedial classes and although I had to take a leave of absence to deal with what I thought at the time would be my last setback in my leukemia. To my surprise all the work I did in high school helped me earn enough credits to be considered at second-year student. In 2013 I hit remission with much excitement, as I believed I was just closing that chapter of my life.

My post-leukemia life was looking better than ever and I was hopeful of a bright future, however on December 18, 2013 I relapsed and have started the nightmare once again. This time the doctors said I need a transplant, my spirits are up but what keeps me going is the hope that I will be back in school by Fall 2014 ready once again to work harder than ever, academically and by bringing awareness to childhood/young adult leukemia.

– – –

Despite being on the bone marrow registry, Jose did not find a match for the transplant he needed. Doctors decided on chemotherapy again for his treatment, which he receives twice a month. This will be his schedule for the next year — classes and chemotherapy — which he is approaching with a very positive attitude. Jose is balancing music and political science courses with what he must do for his recovery and health.   

At the end of my phone call with Jose, I wanted to express my gratitude for the time he spent talking with me about his story. “Thank you, Jose,” I said to him, “I know your life is very busy.” He didn’t hesitate with his reply, “yes, but in a good way.”

Jose is one of three 2014-2015 Cancer for College scholarship recipients returning to school this winter after cancer forced a deferment from their studies this fall. We are honored to be able to support these resilient and determined cancer survivors in their pursuit of a college degree.