Christian graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio this May — though "from" may not be the perfect word since Christian, like thousands of others, officially graduated at home, his ceremony canceled in the wake of the novel coronavirus. This wasn’t the first disruption in Christian's academic career. Just this past fall, Christian’s dear classmate and roommate, Eric Naranjo, died in a plane crash, leaving behind a devastated group of friends and a spare room in the apartment.
"We just...left it empty,” Christian said.
These alone — a senior year and graduation drastically altered by COVID-19, and the loss of a beloved friend — seem like quite enough for a just-now-adult to have weathered. But Christian got to know disruption and loss much earlier than life. In the sixth grade, he was diagnosed with stage four anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
Christian was in and out of the hospital on repeat that year. He had to be pulled out of school and work with a tutor during the weeks he was home in between rounds of inpatient treatment. His body took a long time to react positively to the treatment, but it finally did. By eighth grade, Christian was back at school every day and playing sports.
But during his sophomore year of high school, Christian noticed pain in his right shoulder. His swim team trainer sent him to get it checked out by a sports medicine doctor, but the MRI the doctor conducted didn’t reveal anything. Christian’s pain persisted, and eventually, doctors eventually decided to conduct a biopsy. That’s when they found a node. Christian’s cancer was back.
Christian’s doctors decided to enroll him in a phase 1 drug trial. Christian agreed that the trial was the way to go, but the experience was miserable. In order to test the drug’s impact on Christian’s system comprehensively, his doctors couldn’t give him anything to curb the side effects.
“I swallowed seven horse pills a day,” Christian said. “After the first dose, my stomach hurt so much that I was just curled up in a ball crying. I felt terrible every single day.”
Even still, Christian adored his doctor, Dr. Martinez, who he remembers as “cheerful” and “like a fresh glass of water.” And he remembers asking His Grace Foundation for bringing him the same thing that he wrote on his shopping list every week — cups of Ramen noodles.
“When your blood counts get really low, your bacteria take over,” Christian explained. “So I had incredibly painful mouth sores. The warmth of the broth felt so good.”
On August 8, 2015, Dr. Martinez conducted a live transfer — drawing bone marrow from Christian’s brother, Jonathan, who was a perfect match for Christian, and transplanting it into Christian’s body.
“My brother came up to my room after,” Christian said. “That night, a nurse was checking my pump and my brother was asleep on the sofa. Out of nowhere, he popped up from under his blanket and said, ‘is he okay?!’”
Christian laughed recalling the startled nurse. “Once she told him, ‘yes!’ he went right back to sleep.”
An item from Christian’s HGF welcome basket still makes him smile, too — Bananagrams. “I keep it in my room,” he said, “as a reminder.”
Before his college career ended with so much upheaval and heartbreak, Christian thrived as a biochemistry student, pharmacy technician at Walgreens, and member of the table tennis club at UTSA, which he served as vice-president to Eric’s president during their junior year. Together, they took the club to nationals for the first time in UTSA history.
As for what’s next, well, like a lot of other people graduating from college during a global pandemic, Christian is in a “we’ll see” phase. He has an application out for grad school and is looking for jobs. He’s grieving, and healing, and moving forward, and having fun saying the phrase “when I was in college.”
And he knows that, regardless of where he ends up in his next season of life, he wants to tell people about his experience with cancer.
“I love to educate people,” Christian said. “And I think my experience is something I should be proud of. I overcame adversity. And I want people to know about the love and care I received.”
Read More Stories