Eleazar Hernandez | New Career, New Marriage, and Cancer

New Career, New Marriage, and Cancer

Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would be 20 years old in the military with a wife and diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma stage 3-B. If you were to tell me that, I would think you're crazy. It was a hard pill to swallow. Let me tell you a little about me to understand my thought process fully.

I'm Eleazar Hernandez, born and raised in Brownsville, Texas. I am the youngest out of 3 children and would be the first to enlist in the military in my Mexican family. I enlisted straight out of high school, an 18 yr old with a promising career ahead of him. That was true. I had everything going my way. I was leaving home to join the Air Force, I was going to be independent, and above all, I would make my family proud.
On July 2, 2018, I was on a bus to Lackland, Air Force Base, to start my military career in the World's Greatest Air Force. After two months of training and five months of job training, I was operational and sent to Barksdale, Air Force Base, Louisiana, where I got assigned to the 2nd Maintenance Squadron.

This base is where I would meet my beautiful wife, Halie, and little did I know that within a year of being with my wife, we would get tested with the worst possible news: "you have CANCER."

We found this out when I went to see my Primary Care Manager for a nasty cough and a bump on my neck. He did an ultrasound on the spot and some blood work, and all he said was that it was a swollen lymph node which was to be expected, that my body was fighting off an infection, but the lymph node was dense. So he went on and did a chest X-Ray, I remember that day, and it just plays in my head on repeat. He ordered the X-Ray in the morning on a Friday. I didn't expect him to call me till the following Monday. However, he called me only a few hours later at around 5:30 pm, followed by what my wife and I thought were odd questions, like "Where are you? How far are you from the base? Can you come into the clinic?". We automatically looked at each other and thought, this can't be good. What could be this important that he would call after hours on a Friday? So we went to the clinic, everything closed, and he sat us in his office. My wife and I are getting a weird feeling. He says, "There is no easy way of saying this. You have a 22 centimeter mass in your chest" my heart dropped, that room was heavy, and I was in shock. I couldn't move, think, didn't know what to do, and felt so overwhelmed, and I just broke. I busted out crying. I was scared.

Finally, we left his office confused and afraid, and we tried to use the weekend to make sense of the situation, but no matter which way you looked at it, it didn't make any sense. I was healthy, worked out, ate well, didn't smoke, didn't drink, and no one in my family had any past medical history that correlated to this. So come Monday, we came into work to notify my leadership of the situation, and then I got a call from my Primary Care Manager. "Hey, I was doing research over the weekend, and I think the best thing to do is an MRI and more blood work. Do you want to come in?" I told him sure and thought it was better than waiting around for my other appointments. So I go, and they do all those tests and then leave. Maybe 2hrs go by, and I get another call, "Hey, can you come into the office to talk about your results?" So we get to his office. He's on the phone with an Oncologist. The oncologist is asking, "Where's the patient? Is he stable?" then my Primary Care Manager answers, "he can hear you" the oncologists said, "I don't know how you are even standing. You should be on the floor, unable to move," he said, "you have a ticking time bomb in your chest, and you need to go to the hospital and be admitted." The MRI showed that the mass had grown 6 cm since Friday and that I had a sack of fluid around my heart measuring 5 cm in diameter and could bust at any given moment. So to make matters worse, this doctor I haven't even met just told me I could dieā€¦ WHAT??!

I sensed like it just kept getting worse and worse, so we got to the hospital, and the oncologist was already waiting for us at the main entrance with a wheelchair and told me to go straight to the emergency room, oh and by the way, your wife can't go with you. I was terrified. I didn't know what was going on or what was about to happen. So they take me to the ER, and they start asking me all these questions, and I'm catching them up to speed, but everything is happening too fast. I was trying to keep calm and collected, but you could imagine how that was. As soon as I could, I asked one of the nurses if my wife could be in the room. Luckily, they said yes. She came, and I could tell she had been crying and that she was scared. After a couple of minutes, they came and did several tests. They took my blood for what seemed like every second and constantly checked my vitals, and took an ultrasound of my heart. Then finally, a doctor came in and said that they were going to wait for the surgery till the morning just in case something went wrong, they would be fully staffed. That first night was one of the longest nights that week. I had called my family earlier that day, and around 3 am that night, they were there with me at the ER. They were at a loss for words. How could you see your son in that current situation and tell him it's going to be okay when you don't even know what he's going through? All they said was that GOD only gives you what you can handle and that you're never alone. I took those words to heart.
One thing about me, I hate going to the doctor for any reason. I wouldn't say I like needles, and I was very uncomfortable. But I knew there was no way around it, so I just had to be okay with it, even if I wasn't. The following day I was taken to the operating room where they were going to drain the liquid in my heart, and I just felt a sense of peace like somehow I knew everything was going to be okay. I was awake for the whole procedure, and once they finished, they took me to a separate room to recover. Then I was taken to get a biopsy of the swollen lymph node to find out what we were dealing with. Later on in the day, the doctor came in and said that they drained 1.6 Liters of liquid from my heart and that he was going to leave the tube in till the following day to see if any more would come out. That night I didn't want to move. Everything hurt. I looked at my stomach, and all I saw was a tube coming out, and it was attached to a bag, and any slight movement felt as if someone was stabbing me in my chest. By then, I was mentally done. I was exhausted, and all I wanted was to go home, but I knew that wasn't possible. Oh, and throughout the night, they kept drawing blood and checking my vitals like clockwork.

The next day the doctor came in to see if he could drain any more liquid and then cut the stitches and pull the tube out. He did it in one swift motion, and it felt like he was going to pull my heart out of my chest. He covered the hole with a Band-Aid on the opening and walked out. Later that day, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma stage 3-B. As bad as this might sound, that's what we were hoping for because this type of CANCER has an 80% cure rate and is one of the most common types. So that was a good thing, but then later that night, my oncologist came to see me and talked to me about what the next steps would look like and asked us, "Do you have any kids?" We looked at each other and then said no. He said, "I'm sorry to have to tell you this way, but you guys should come to terms with the fact that having children may not be in the cards for you." Then he went on to talk about my Chemotherapy. Which, by the way, started two days from then. The following day the doctor did surgery to put my port in, and later that afternoon, I would be discharged from the hospital. I was just relieved to be back home and not have to worry about nurses coming in and drawing my blood or poking me with needles. Now was when the real struggle began my start of Chemotherapy.
The whole time I was in the hospital, I never knew what the doctors talked about. I heard what they were saying, but I didn't know what they meant. All I understood was that I would have to sit on a chair once every two weeks for 4-5 hours. They were going to be pumping medicine through my port, then the day after, I would have to get a shot in my arm to boost my immune system. Doing that 12 times didn't seem that bad, but boy, was I wrong. The first round wasn't that bad. I didn't feel anything, but by the 3rd or 4th, these side effects started to kick in real quick. I would randomly get super tired out of nowhere, my hair started to fall off, my bones began to ache, I couldn't taste my food, I was nauseous all the time, and overall I was always uncomfortable. To think that I still had eight more rounds to go, I was done mentally, physically, and emotionally too. The thing that helped me through the remainder of the process was my faith. If it weren't for that, I would still be lost, and left overwhelmed with the whole situation.

By the fourth round, my oncologist did a Position Emission Tomography, PET scan to see how everything was going, and to our surprise, the CANCER was dead! This was the best news I could have gotten. At last, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Things were starting to look up, but the battle wasn't over. I still had to finish the remainder of my treatments. But now I had that going for me, and I was motivated, and I just kept repeating to myself, "you're almost done, just one more," and "it could be worse." Those simple little phrases kept me going, even through the times when I thought I was done, to the point where I couldn't anymore. I also couldn't give up, and I had to think about my wife and our future. We are both so young. We have so many plans. I didn't want to make things worse by thinking negatively or giving up, and I didn't want to see my wife suffer anymore. So I tried to see things from a different perspective.
I feel like we lucked out with our leadership. They were accommodating and understanding of the whole situation. They were trying to make things as easy as possible for my wife and me. They were constantly checking up on me and ensuring that I didn't need anything. They even set up a meal train. They were indeed a blessing. I can't thank them enough for all they have done for my wife and me. I felt like I was part of a family. If it weren't for the military, I would be in debt for the rest of my life. At the same time, I was going through treatment. I never once had to pay anything out of pocket. Not only that, but many of our friends showed up for us. They helped me forget that I was dealing with cancer, even if it was for just a moment.

Overall, the Air Force as a whole was very good to my family and me, and for that, I am genuinely grateful. I was also allowed to get in contact with the Warrior Network, they really showed compassion and empathy about my situation, and they made it known that I wasn't alone and that if I needed anything, they were just a call or text away. I was able to talk with the founder, Trey McGuire. We had a good conversation about the situation, and he was very genuine and showed that he genuinely cared for me and others like me. Something elegant that I will never forget was my last Chemotherapy. I was excited because it was the final one, and after six months, I was ready to be done finally. Like all the other times, I went there and didn't expect anything special. Once I got done as we were walking out of the office, I was welcomed by what seemed like 100 people, friends, co-workers, and everyone who was cheering us on this journey. I didn't know what to do. I burst into tears, and I very happily rang that bell.
To sum up, I am very grateful to everyone who helped my family and me, whether with a prayer, a meal, a motivating comment, or anything. THANK YOU. I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason, that although we may not know at the moment, all we can do is learn and be grateful and give thanks for what we have. After going through this season or chapter in my life, I have seen myself grow: in faith, in my marriage, and in the way I view life. I was forced to be humbled, and that caused me to take a moment and appreciate life and be grateful for what I have. I finally feel like I understand why I needed to go through this. I was moving too fast, I wanted to do so much in very little time, and I didn't appreciate life. I was trying to bite off more than I could chew, and in doing so, I could have ended up in a worse situation.

Subsequently finishing Chemotherapy, I've returned to work and been getting back to normalcy, even though I don't even know what that is anymore. I'm not going to lie to you; it was hard trying to start where I left off. I was not the same person, I didn't want people treating me any different, and I was scared that cancer could come back. So whenever I came back to work, I didn't know how to act or what to do, and I didn't know what I could do. So that was another thing in itself here. I thought the most challenging part was over, but for some reason, this was harder. Nonetheless, I still managed to find the good in this. I was cancer-free healthy. I got the chance to go to work. Just simple things like that people take for granted, and I used it as little victories to get me through day by day.

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