What I Wish I Knew When I Was Diagnosed with Cancer.

By: Julia Hernandez

Julia Hernandez, 2011 St. Baldrick’s Ambassador, was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day in 2010. She shares her story and the advice she would have given her 16-year-old self.

You never expect to be told that you have cancer, but on February 14, 2010, after days in the hospital for pain management, it happened to me. In a matter of days, I went from being a typical 16-year-old, worried about my upcoming driver’s license test, to living in a hospital.

I was told I had acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and was transferred to Long Beach Miller Children’s Hospital for treatment. The next day, I had surgery to insert a semi-permanent IV in my chest, called a broviac, so I could begin chemotherapy. Over the next seven months I was given multiple chemotherapy drugs, and underwent many procedures to ensure the medication was getting the job done.

I had to cope with losing weight, my social life, and my hair.

For me, on Valentine’s Day, I am reminded of the scared teenager, sitting in a hospital bed at Torrance Memorial Hospital hearing the words, “Julia, you have leukemia,” for the first time and having my world turned upside down in an instant.

Since that day seven years ago, I have accomplished so much: I beat cancer, graduated high school, interned with an MLB team, graduated college, and started graduate school. My diagnosis and treatment didn’t just give me a miles-long medical record and a scar on my chest — cancer has shaped me in ways far beyond the physical.

There are so many things I learned from this experience. If I could go back and give advice to my 16-year-old self after just being diagnosed with cancer, I would say this:

1) Practice mindfulness. Learn how to meditate and incorporate it into your daily routine. Your body will be taking a beating, so take care of your mind.

2) Actually do your physical therapy. It is tedious and not fun, but it will make your transition back to the real world much, much easier.

3) Don’t try to remember the big words the doctors throw at you within the first day. Your vocabulary will grow immensely throughout your treatment. Trying to learn everything on day one will not make anything easier or less stressful.

4) Whatever you do, do not look at Wikipedia to learn about your diagnosis. Objective opinions can be useful, but the internet is a scary place and looking will not do you any favors.

5) Depression is not something to be ashamed of. Mental illnesses are like other illnesses and they can be treated. Do not ignore it, you have so many people ready to help you and support you. Do not be ashamed, get help.

6) Last, but most important, never stop fighting — not just against cancer, but for yourself and what you believe in. Cancer will beat you down, but it will also bring out the best parts of you, parts you didn’t even know existed until this point. You are stronger than you think. You will learn to fight in ways you didn’t know were possible and use that determination later in your life to find your passions and what you’re willing to fight for.

Want to hear from another childhood cancer survivor? Read Cierra Walsh’s story and learn why two years after being diagnosed she decided to shave her head.