PIctured: Sisters Alicia Gallegos and Esmeralda Chapa are pictured in front of a small shrine in Alicia’s home that they used as a prayer sanctuary, to which they attribute Alicia surviving cancer and leukemia. Photo by OFELIA GARCIA HUNTER
Ofelia Garcia Hunter, Alice Echo-News Journal
Alicia Gallegos, 59, celebrated Thanksgiving Day because her younger sister, Esmeralda Chapa literally saved her life.
Esmerlda, two years younger then her sister, was instrumental in keeping her sister alive by providing the replacement cells her sister needed for a bone marrow transplant earlier this year.
"It was a miracle," said Alicia as she recalled that only a year ago she was dying. "I’m still here, dandoles guerra (giving them heck)."
Alicia, seven years ago was diagnosed with a form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. According to reports, it is a cancer that's in the lymph system. It affects lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell. Lymphocytes are part of the immune system and help fight infection.
"I would get a lot of chills, fever and nigh sweats," Alicia said.
Her sister said that Alicia was barely existing.
"They couldn’t pinpoint or find any infection at first," Esmeralda said. "She could barely be there, she couldn’t even talk. Alicia told me later that she didn’t think she was going to see me again."
When Alicia was diagnosed with cancer, Esmeralda said that they hugged and cried.
NHL is the sixth most common cancer in American men and the fifth most common cancer in American women. It ranks among the top 10 most common cancers in the United States, reports state. Nearly 300,000 people in the United States are living with NHL. The disease may be diagnosed in more than 60,000 Americans this year.
There are more than 30 types of NHL divided into two main categories, according to how fast the tumors grow. Low-grade, or slow-growing, tumors are called indolent NHL and Intermediate and high-grade, or fast-growing, tumors are called aggressive NHL or highly aggressive NHL.
The main goal of any cancer treatment is to destroy cancer cells, and the same is true for NHL treatment. The main types of treatment for NHL are chemotherapy, radiation therapy (the use of x-ray beams) and Immunotherapy.
That was when Alicia under her doctors’ care was advised to undergo chemotherapy. She was in treatment for six months, which led to her remission for several months. Then during the holidays of 2001, Alicia was bedridden and sick again. Esmeralda said that with the possibility of Alicia’s cancer reoccurring, she wanted to take her straight to the best hospitals in Houston. Esmeralda was so determined to get her to the best medical facility that she called MD Anderson Hospital in Houston and they advised her to go to a closer hospital because Alicia might have not made the long trip.
Esmeralda said that they took Alicia to a Calallen hospital instead and the doctors were not optimistic aboutAlicia’s health and put her in Intensive Care Unit.
"The doctors told me that she was a very sick woman," Esmeralda said. "She was going down, down, down."
Alicia was being given blood transfusions every other day just to keep her going, Esmeralda said. And in 2003, she had stem cell replacement treatment to build up her white cells. The treatment held up and Alicia went into remission for about three years. During that time, her two sisters, including Esmeralda, and one brother were tested to see if they were possible bone marrow matches.
The tests came back and the doctors said that no one was a match.
Then they got a call that one of the tests was overlooked.
"The doctor said that there was a match," Esmeralda said. "I was the one."
In November 2006, Alicia was sick again and doctors were contemplating what treatment Alicia should take.
And in January, Alicia received bad news that she had developed a form of Leukemia. But with a perfect match from her sister, doctors then decided to start the process for a bone marrow transplant.
From January to March, the sisters were making trips to Houston for several testing and blood lab work. During one weekend, Esmeralda had to undergo a series of inoculations to increase her cell population.
"I would have to (administer) the shots on my stomach," Esmeralda said. "I started to get sick with body aches."
She said going through a few days of flu-like symptoms was well worth saving her sister’s life. Esmeralda also had to lay in a hospital bed for four hours as doctors extracted millions of good cells from her body that would later be infused in her sister.
"They took eight million stem cells from me on Tuesday and I had to go again on Wednesday, and the second time was easier," Esmeralda said.
"They took another three million cells. I didn’t feel sick, I was just tense and scared because I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that if I could do it, I would do it for my sister."
Esmeralda said that Alicia told her that if the treatment didn’t work the first time, she didn’t want her to do it again.
"I tried to stay strong for her," Esmeralda said as she started crying. "At night I would pray and cry to myself and I would keep it to myself…we want to thank God first, He comes first."
From March to May, Esmeralda’s cells were kept frozen until the bone marrow transplant took place for her sister on May 29.
After six months of recovering, Alicia spent Thanksgiving with her family that includes five children, 28 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She said she feels great, thanks to her younger sister and God who made it all come together.
On Sunday, she was able to go to the church bingo with her sister — an activity she hadn’t been able to attend because of her sickness.
"It was a perfect match, like they (the cells) were mine," Alicia said with tears in her eyes. "I was reborn…I love her very much."