Thriving After, Not Merely Surviving, Cancer
Cedars-Sinai Cancer Patient Finds New Purpose After Participating in Wellness, Resilience and Survivorship Programming Focused on Restoring Body, Mind and Soul
Carlos Rene Valdez is a big fan of the saying “dance like no one’s watching,” but with one modification. An overachiever with a healthy dose of confidence, Valdez enjoys dancing like no one’s watching even when everyone is watching.
Valdez’s dance through life was interrupted by a cancer diagnosis, but it was the struggle to move on after recovery that ended his career and threatened his life. Wellness, Resilience and Survivorship programming, a part of the Patient and Family Support Program at Cedars-Sinai Cancer, as well as care from director of Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship Arash Asher, MD, gave him his life back.
“I can say with certainty that I would not be here today if it weren’t for this program and Dr. Asher,” Valdez said. “His passion for his work, his wisdom, his impeccable bedside manner … through it all, Dr. Asher has been right there by my side.”
On a Friday night in late spring 2012, Valdez was on his way out the door for a night of dancing when the subtle lower back pain he had been experiencing for months suddenly became nearly debilitating. Kidney stones, he thought. His mom had had them before. They would pass soon.
His partner disagreed and told Valdez he needed to get to the hospital right away.
“I thought he was being dramatic,” Valdez said. “But I gave in, and we went to the Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai. They did a lot of tests and three days later we found out what was wrong.”
The diagnosis was lymphoma—a blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system. Valdez was 28 years old.
He had just landed a big promotion at work, getting him one step closer to his goal of becoming a vice president at his company and retiring early. He had advanced quickly, from working the front desk for Starwood Hotels & Resorts properties to becoming its youngest director of revenue management. Valdez was proud of his successes. He hadn’t been able to go to college and especially relished any opportunity to learn something new.
“I felt like all my career goals were completely upended when I got cancer,” he said.
That first year after diagnosis, Valdez underwent chemotherapy, followed by a transplant using his own healthy blood stem cells to replace damaged cells, a recurrence of lymphoma, and a bone marrow transplant. It was a long and arduous year.
Valdez’s healthcare team recommended that he participate in Wellness, Resilience and Survivorship programming through the Cedars-Sinai Cancer Patient and Family Support Program. Classes and coaching help cancer survivors navigate life after diagnosis, focusing on body, mind and soul rehabilitation. A holistic team of cancer rehabilitation physicians, nurse practitioners, exercise physiologists, art therapists, neuropsychologists, social workers and dietitians empowers patients as they adjust to a “new normal” and provides a community of people who have been through a similar experience.
Getting back to work was his sole focus. He had big ambitions and little time to waste.
But he would soon realize that it was too much, too soon.
Roadblocks on the Path to Healing
The eventual end of Valdez’s longtime relationship, the mental and emotional turmoil of cancer and the physical toll of aggressive treatment that led to loss of mobility all added up.
Before long, Valdez was sleeping in his car between work meetings and struggling to keep up with the pace. He developed an opiate addiction. He had to leave his job and go on permanent disability. He sank into a deep depression and rarely left home. With no income, he became homeless. He attempted suicide.
“It was a dark time,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t continue down that path.”
It was time to check out the support options his Cedars-Sinai care team had recommended.
Through the programming, which also included the Cancer Exercise Recovery Program, Valdez found stability, community and compassion. He also found an advocate in Asher.
Getting On With Life
“Some people want to sweep their cancer experience under the rug and get on with life,” Asher said. “For others, it’s too big to sweep under the rug. Many people say that they feel lost after treatment ends. The warrior phase is over, the boxing gloves have come off, and they’re unsure of what to do next.”
That’s where the rehabilitation programming comes in. Educational programs, physical rehabilitation, and classes in yoga, qigong, meditation, art and nutrition are just a few of the offerings.
To avoid overwhelming patients with too many options, Asher and team listen to what patients most need in their recovery process, and then tailor specific offerings that may be most beneficial.
“If they are struggling with emotional distress, we may offer an art therapy or mindfulness program, or make a referral to a specialized clinician who can help,” he said. “If they’re physically debilitated or need to regain strength, we offer our exercise program.”
Scott Irwin, MD, PhD, director of the Patient and Family Support Program at Cedars-Sinai Cancer, said it is gratifying to know that patients like Valdez find immense benefit from the program.
“One goal is to offer as many of our existing programs as possible throughout all the Cedars-Sinai Cancer care sites,” Irwin said. “In the longer term, Dr. Asher hopes to adapt some of the programs for distribution nationwide. They can offer so much to patients recovering from cancer; we want to share them much more broadly.”
Through the rehabilitation programming, Valdez found renewed strength and mobility, as well as emotional and mental support. He also found a new career aspiration—he’s launched his own tote bag company and plans to use the profits to fund mental health programs for youth and programs for cancer survivors.
“I haven’t felt this fulfilled in over 10 years, and I owe it all to Dr. Asher and the cancer rehabilitation program at Cedars-Sinai,” he said.
He is interested in exploring more of the themes of cancer survivorship. While he is grateful for improved survival rates for many cancers, he’d like to see more emphasis on helping people navigate post-cancer life.
Mostly, though, he wants patients with cancer to remember that it’s OK to not feel OK sometimes.
“It may not be easy, and you may want to give up,” he said. “But try to keep pushing a little further. Remember that you’re an incredible person, and you may just surprise yourself as you embrace your new normal.”
Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Surviving Cancer and Cooking for Health