Cancer is a journey

Chris D'Andrea
Cancer is a journey

During this month – National Cancer Survivors Month – we will share a series of blog posts from our own cancer survivors. Each cancer journey is unique. At Luminis Health, we want to shine a light on these journeys from the perspective of our own patients. That’s why we’ve started this new series – bringing hope and comfort to those who have been touched by cancer.

Chris D’Andrea’s Story:

In 2018, I started having severe reactions to mosquito bites. My primary care physician in Virginia Beach did some blood work, and I had consultations with an allergist and dermatologist, but everything came back normal. In the summer of 2019, I began having other symptoms including night sweats. My doctor ran additional tests and performed a lymph node biopsy. These tests confirmed my worst nightmare: I had cancer. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, specifically mantle cell lymphoma.

It was a huge curveball. The kind of cancer I have only affects 4,000 people per year in the U.S. and the average age is 65. I was 49 when I was diagnosed. I definitely went through the “why me?” phase. But as my journey progressed—and cancer is a journey—I started telling myself, “why not me?” I wouldn’t want it to be any of my family members or friends.

I started chemotherapy in the fall of 2019 at George Washington University Cancer Center (GWUCC) and had great response to treatment. In January 2020, I began maintenance therapy with Dr. Tabbara, who was then at GWUCC, in preparation for an autologous stem cell transplant. Nurse Kathy Zimmerman, Dr. Tabbara’s hematology/oncology transplant coordinator, has been amazing and my touchpoint since I began treatment. She always kept the process moving forward, be it navigating insurance approvals or answering my numerous questions. Nurse Manager Emily Zerges from the oncology/transplant ward has also been fantastic making my hospital stays as comfortable as possible and addressing any of my treatment concerns.

Unfortunately, my lymphoma returned before my stem cell transplant, so I began an oral treatment regimen. Mantel cell lymphoma can become resistant to treatments that previously worked, so it’s important to have a team that understands the nuances of the disease and the numerous treatment options. I had my transplant last October and was doing very well initially but, unfortunately, I’ll need to have a second one later this year. For that one, my son will be the donor.

But the crazy thing was that in the middle of all this, Dr. Tabbara, Kathy, and Emily told me they were transferring to Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center. It was a punch in the gut to hear they were leaving, because I had been through so much with them on this journey and they were just such a great team. But since my wife, who was active duty military at the time, was stationed in Washington, D.C., I decided to continue my care with Dr. Tabbara and his team. So I said, “tell us when you’re going, I’ll make sure insurance covers it, and I’ll go.”

So now, I travel from Virginia Beach to Annapolis for treatment. Our insurance has been great; it even covers travel for medical appointments. My wife has also been amazing, coming with me to all my appointments, staying by my side at the hospital during treatment and documenting my journey so we can ask the right questions. She has been my rock and source of strength. I also have great support from friends and a strong prayer chain. I couldn’t do it alone.

Like I said, cancer is a journey. You meet great people along the way, whom you would never have known if you’d just passed them on the street—but because of the way fate and God work, we met. We consider the doctors and nurses to be friends of the family now. They see people at their worst and they’re always there, redesigning treatment plans and supporting you along the way.

There is no cure for my disease, but my doctors are very confident we’ll get it into remission for a long time. And when your doctors feel that way, it’s helpful—it gives you hope as a patient. Each day you can wake up and see the sunshine is a good day.