When Karen Escobar began experiencing debilitating bone pain in her pelvis several months ago, the fitness trainer and co-owner of CrossFit Zanshin in Peachtree Corners was determined to find the cause of these painful episodes.
Having been involved in fitness and healthy eating her entire adult life, she enjoyed a healthy lifestyle. Together with her fiancé and CrossFit Zanshin co-owner Pete Mongeau, she had also made a career of coaching others to reach their fitness goals too. But as test after test came back negative, Escobar could not shake the feeling of unease.
“I saw many specialists, and I was also starting to develop other symptoms,” she said. “I became anemic. I became covered in unexplained little bruises, and tiny red dots started appearing on my skin.”
It was that symptom that would prompt one specialist to run further tests and refer her to a hematologist/oncologist, who would order a bone marrow biopsy.
Then on June 11, Escobar learned that she had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. According to the American Cancer Society, ALL is a blood cancer that originates in the bone marrow, the soft inner part of certain bones where new blood cells formulate. With ALL, the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.
“I was at the office when I got the news,” she said. “I cried for about five minutes, then went into a hyper-focused state. I was admitted to the hospital for my first round of treatment that same afternoon. It has been a sprint ever since.”
That “sprint” is the result of ALL’s rate of progression. This blood cancer develops quickly, which means that the start of treatment should take the same course.
Typically, the treatment for ALL is chemotherapy, but because further tests revealed that Escobar had extra protein growing on her cancer cells (also called the Philadelphia or Ph chromosome), she learned that she would also need to undergo a bone marrow transplant.
National bone marrow databases like BeTheMatch.org are important to those with diagnoses like Escobar’s. The databases depend on donors to get tested and join their bone marrow registry in order to provide the bone marrow needed to help save lives.
In Escobar’s case, the database could not find her a match. Luckily, both her sister and adult son were a match. Her sister Wendy would be her donor, and after several rounds of chemotherapy, Escobar’s bone marrow transplant surgery was scheduled for Sept. 27. The surgery was to be followed by a mandatory six days of recovery in the hospital.
The journey through this battle has not been easy one, and the slow recovery is an ongoing challenge. The chemotherapy treatment alone was both physically and mentally taxing, Escobar said.
“The third and fourth rounds [of chemotherapy] were tough,” she said. “I got depressed.”
Despite the challenges, Escobar breathes optimism as it relates to her prognosis and future. Her support system deserves some credit for that optimism. Mongeau, her fiancé, as well as her nephew William (who left his life in California to become her caregiver after she received her diagnosis), son Blake and many other family members and friends have stepped in to lend a hand.
“I have support from so many wonderful friends and family,” she said.
Today, Escobar looks forward to the day she can get clearance from her doctors and back to her active, social lifestyle — and the day she becomes a cancer survivor.
“[I am] a fighter. I have complete faith in my bone marrow team and in God,” she said. “I will not let my diagnosis of ALL define who I am. I know this is something I am meant to grow and learn from. I know this journey will make me stronger than ever, and I absolutely know that I will be cured.”
Each month of the year is dedicated to a particular form of cancer in order to raise awareness, promote further research, celebrate its survivors and spread the message of hope to those who are still actively battling the disease. Communities gather in solidarity to walk or run for the cause and impart knowledge of prevention. Advocates push for legislative change and companies market consumer products in which part of the proceeds are donated to research. Even sports teams at the national and local levels actively show their support by wearing the symbolic pink ribbon for the most nationally recognized cancer cause, breast cancer awareness, which begins this month.
Each cancer awareness month reminds us that the disease is far-reaching and that a cancer diagnosis does not discriminate against anyone, even those that live a healthy lifestyle.
To learn more about ALL or other types of cancers, to donate, volunteer or to start or participate in a fundraiser event in your area, visit Cancer.org. Contact American Cancer Society’s cancer helpline, which is open 24/7, for advice, support or information, by calling 1-800-227-2345.
To learn more about becoming a lifesaving bone marrow donor and joining the national registry, visit BeTheMatch.org.