at the Washington Redskins, a professional football team
that works closely with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
A team representative told Hernandez-Aldama to contact
medical oncologist Mark Levis at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel
Cancer Center in Baltimore. Hernandez-Aldama made phone
calls and turned to Facebook and Twitter, telling her contacts she had cancer and needed to get in touch with Levis.
Less than a day after she was diagnosed, Levis called her
after reviewing her test results. On the call, he made it clear
just how advanced her cancer was.
“He said, ‘Get on a plane, and get here right away. There’s
a bed waiting for you. You can’t wait,’ ” she says. Levis said
Hernandez-Aldama had cytogenetically normal AML,
meaning she had a shortage of white blood cells, red blood
cells and platelets, making her susceptible to infections,
fatigue, weakness and abnormal bleeding. Forty to 50
percent of people with AML have this type of disease.
Hernandez-Aldama and her husband arranged for
Gabriel to stay with her mother in Atlanta, but she didn’t
expect to be away from her son for long. After all, as a
health reporter, she had interviewed people being treated
for cancer who were living at home. “I thought I was going
to get a little chemo, and then I’d see him in two weeks,”
she says of Gabriel.
When she got to the hospital,
Hernandez-Aldama learned from
Levis that AML is treated with
multiple rounds of chemotherapy
that could last up to a year.
From the end of January to mid-August, she stayed at the hospital for several cycles of intense
chemotherapy, each lasting
40 days or more, followed by a
two-week break between each
round. Side effects included
exhaustion, mouth sores,
muscle pain and chills. The
treatments also destroyed her normal cells along with
leukemia cells, which caused her to have neutropenia—low
levels of the white blood cells called neutrophils that help
fight infection. Hernandez-Aldama often felt too weak to
get out of bed, but she forced herself to walk laps around
the hospital floor.
While in treatment, she was alone for most of the day
until Cesar finished work and visited in the evening. She
was able to see Gabriel only during the two-week breaks
between cycles. Her eyes well up with tears when she
describes phone calls with Gabriel during her hospital
stay. “How many more sleeps?” he would ask, meaning
how many more nights before he would see his mother.
Not knowing the answer, Hernandez-Aldama would
simply say, “Soon, baby, soon.”
In August 2014, Hernandez-Aldama completed her
fourth round of chemotherapy and went home. Her doctor
told her a follow-up bone marrow biopsy would look for
abnormal blood cells; if none were spotted, she would be
in remission. In early September, the biopsy was per-
formed. As part of a study she had signed up for, research-
ers also examined the bone marrow’s stem cells, the
enjoys a board game with
her husband, Cesar, and son,
Gabriel, at their Ashburn,
“It’s not about
It’s about preparing
your body and mind
for the fight.”