My Key Club Story: Crystal Nguyen

A cancer diagnosis is one of those things you’d never expect to happen to you. Anything of the sort wouldn’t even seem possible in real life. However, the impossible happened to me a few years ago and since then, my life has been a bit more challenging than an ordinary teenage girl’s life. Surviving cancer, not once, but twice, was hands down the toughest challenge I’ve had to face. When people ask me if I could change things so that I didn’t have to fight my battles, would I take that chance? You can call me crazy, but in a heartbeat, I could tell you that I wouldn’t change it for the world. In June 2011 when I was twelve, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The type of leukemia I had was the more uncommon and aggressive type, so my planned treatment was to undergo five rounds of intense chemotherapy. However, upon completing my third round of chemotherapy, I became severely ill with a sepsis infection. At this point all of the chemotherapy had wiped out all of my cells and my body had nothing to fight back with. All I could remember was being in an excruciating amount of stomach pain; pain so unbearable that high doses of morphine couldn’t even help relieve. That was my last memory before the ICU. For almost 3 weeks, I was in a medicated coma in the Intensive Care Unit at BC Children’s Hospital. All of my major organs had started to fail and my heart was beating twice as hard to keep everything going. What started off as additional support in the ICU gradually became a frightening reality for all of us as my body started to shut down; it got to the point where even one of the doctors started to give up because he has seen the grim reality of kids that went down this path. Weeks later, somehow, some way, I was able to open my eyes and miraculously turn that corner to begin my trek to recovery. Although I was only able to undergo three out of the five rounds of chemotherapy, my oncologist decided that it was best to not continue through with the rest of the treatment since my heart was too weak from the sepsis infection to handle any more. Fast forward one month later to October 2011, my oncologist declares my remission. Aside from my frequent follow-ups at BC Children’s, life was great. I had just beat cancer, my life was returning back to normal, and I was able to start high school at David Thompson Secondary with my friends. Eventually after a certain number of “clear” blood tests, the doctors moved me from weekly follow-ups to monthly and from monthly to every few months. Two and a half years later, my follow ups were once every three months. My appointment had been booked for March, and for some reason, everyone in my family, including my highly organized and seldom forgetful mother forgot about my follow-up. The hospital ended up giving us a call and rebooking my appointment for April. When I went in that day for blood work, I felt completely fine, but my blood test results showed otherwise. My oncologist gave us a call that night, requesting further testing by a means of a bone marrow biopsy. I remember thinking it was so strange and unnecessary because I felt perfectly fine and I didn’t see a need for more pokes and procedures. A couple days later, we followed Dr. Pritchard’s orders and I underwent a bone marrow biopsy. Shortly after waking up from my procedure, my oncologist slid the glass sliding doors to the small hospital room with a distressed look on her face. She came to stand beside me, and with a few shorts words, our world turned upside down all over again: “I’m so sorry Crystal, but there’s just this one last cancer cell we didn’t get rid of last time.” Everything happens for a reason. To this day, I am in awe of how things happen the way they do. Looking back at it now, it was truly a miracle in disguise that we all forgot about my follow-up in March. If I went to get my blood work done in March, there’s a really high chance that my oncologist wouldn’t have been able to detect any abnormalities in my blood, seeing as how her catching it in April was already very early on. That one little cancer cell that she found a month later might not have been there if I went any earlier, and that’s a crazy thought. The second time around when I relapsed in April 2014, the plan was for me to undergo two intense rounds of chemotherapy to wipe out all of my cells before receiving a bone marrow transplant. Going into my second battle was easier than my first one in a sense because I was healthier, stronger, and I was mature enough to understand what I needed to do to be okay again; but that didn’t make battling cancer any easier. To say that the transplant was challenging is an understatement. Finding a suitable donor whose DNA matched mine was quite the challenge as none of my parents or family members were suitable matches for me. My oncologist had to resort to the National Bone Marrow registry. Fortunately, she was able to find a cord blood donor from an undisclosed location somewhere across the world. During transplant, I was in isolation from July to October, meaning that I wasn’t allowed to have visitors other than my immediate family, namely my parents as even my younger baby brother was too high of a risk for germs. Everything that was brought into my small isolation hospital room had to be brand new and vigorously wiped down with disinfectant wipes. Despite all of the safety measures used to ensure that my living environment was sterile, I somehow managed to get sick here and there and my stem cells took an unusually longer amount of time than usual to develop in my new bone marrow. Although waiting for that day to come was highly difficult, there was nothing better than having my oncologist find evidence of a stem cell developing in my marrow. Overjoyed, thrilled, and over the top elated combined can’t even come close to the feeling of joy we all had. From there on out, I was on the up and up, climbing my way into remission. Despite my seemingly never-ending complications, I never let anything stop me. It has been a long journey, from my first diagnosis to today, and I know there’s still a lot to happen over these next few years of follow-up, but that’s okay. If I had the strength to climb my own version of Mount Everest twice, I can sure overcome and conquer anything else that life has to throw at me. I am a stronger person today because of my diagnosis. I’ve been able to immensely grow as a person, find true inspiration in the hospital staff and share my story to motivate amazing people like you. The work and commitment you put into the Kiwanis Children’s Cancer Program is truly admirable. Your efforts go beyond raising funds for cancer research; you’ve actually helped fund one of my favourite fellows, Dr. Bjorn. I truly believe that the extraordinary staff at BC Children’s Hospital play a major role in the healing processes of patients. By providing generous amounts of money to help fund their education, you’re helping BC Children’s Hospital be the best that they can be and you’re helping them ensure that BC’s kids receive only the best care. All of you who have dedicated so much of your time to such a great cause, I just want to say thank you, for everything that you do.