Wednesday, August 22, 2007


We're all familiar with the saying, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonades."

But for Christine Pechera, a brave and now cancer-free Pinay, a more appropriate saying could be, "When life gives you cancer, kick its behind."

Last week, she related over the phone how ecstatic she felt just being able to do regular things again, like eating at a restaurant and standing under a New York rain.

"It was raining outside so I went out and just stood in the rain. My mom was yelling, "Get out of the rain, get out of the rain!" but I just wanted to let the rain hit my face. [With the second life given to me], I felt like it was a baptism. It was like a moment of cleansing for me."

Her family couldn't be happier now that she's back with them.
"When I arrived home, I had all these home-cooked meals waiting for me. Dinuguan, monggo, adobo - all my favorites," she said.

She is as busy as ever. "I plan to visit the churches and other Filipino communities in the area who organized bone marrow drives. I want to give thanks to all of them for their support," she said.

My piece (see below) about Christine comes out today in Philippine News. I first wrote about her plight back in 2006 in this article.

Christine Pechera’s faith tames cancer
Yong B. Chavez, Aug 22, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Most people usually don’t cry while eating ice cream but that is exactly what Christine Pechera and her mother did a week ago at Friendly’s, their favorite diner in New York.

“We were talking about the last time we were here and then we both just started crying,” Christine said. The Pechera family, longtime East Coast residents, has been affected by the savageness of cancer more than most families. Before she was diagnosed, Christine donated her own marrow to her brother, Francis Rex, who had lymphoma and also needed a transplant. Because of Christine’s donation, Rex went on to live a few more years. Her sister is a current survivor of lymphoma.

It’s been about 21 months since the Pechera women were at the same restaurant, talking about the cold realities of Christine’s cancer relapse. This time she felt that it was more vicious than ever.

Christine thought that it would be the last time she and her mom would be sharing their favorite ice cream treat.

“I told my Mom that and she said, ‘No, you will get well. We will come back here again, you’ll see’. I was crying so hard because, morbid as it sounds, I knew that chances are, I will be coming back home in a box.”

In July 2006, she played her last card: A risky partial match transplant from a donor based in Hong Kong.

When I caught up with her in March of this year, she said that was still not sure if she will make it.

“A simple flu could kill me,” she said then. Her life revolved around visits to the City of Hope hospital.

But 13 months after the transplant, she got the greatest news of her life: Her doctors told her that she is now cancer-free.

“I just couldn’t believe it. I literally went numb. I kept asking my doctor, ‘Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?’”

Her doctor showed her the scans. It was completely clear.

“The images were a cool blue, a peaceful blue. A vast empty void of pure, unadulterated pristine health…this is beyond miracle,” Christine ecstatically wrote on her blog right after getting the news.

“The results of the “one-year” bone marrow biopsy came back 100% donor. In the past, “100% donor” meant “promising” or “a good sign”. The marrow also came back “clear.” This triple-confirms that the cancer has completely vanished. At 13 months out, it is safe to officially say that the donor marrow has taken and that the transplant is successful,” she recently assured her supporters on her blog, adding that her father broke down on the phone when she told him that her plans of mounting a post-cancer celebration party is pushing through because she is, indeed, a full-pledged survivor now.

Three years ago, at age 30, doctors told Christine that she had a rare and very aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was given a month to live. Her father flew to California to bring her home to die.

But after receiving chemotherapy and an autologous transplant (a procedure where the patient’s own cells are used instead of a donor’s), Christine thought she had her cancer licked for good. In December 2005, it was back. This time, she needed a bone marrow transplant, and for that, she needed a matching donor.

Finding a donor is hard enough but as a Filipino, Christine feared that her chances of finding a match were slim-to-none. Among minorities, Filipinos contribute the least to the bone marrow registry.

“I had less than 10 percent chance of surviving,” Christine said. What she did with this knowledge astounded and inspired not only her family and friends but also strangers.

Using her remaining strength, she actively participated in bone marrow drives and spoke at countless church and community events to enjoin Filipinos to sign up. She was relentless.

When I interviewed her last year at a bone marrow drive sponsored by Goldilocks when she had yet to find a match, Christine related her day-to-day struggle with dizzy spells and general weakness brought on by chemotherapy. And yet, her focus to sign up donors didn’t seem to waver.

“Even if I don’t survive, other patients might be if we sign up more people so I have to keep doing this,” she said then.

“Christine was a very open and hardworking patient. She went all out,” said Madhuri Mistry, public relations and South Asian outreach and recruitment coordinator of Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M).

A3M is a Los Angeles-based organization that recruits donors in six Asian communities to assist patients in finding marrow matches. Information on how to be a donor can be obtained from and in Filipino events such as the upcoming Festival of Philippine Arts & Culture (FPAC). They are also mounting a fundraising concert featuring Martin Nievera in October to help more patients. Currently, they are helping to find a donor for Hawaii-based Jonah Kalaikai Jr., a 5-year-old part Filipino with acute myeloma.

A3M was able to sign up more Filipinos during the first five months of Christine’s involvement in the bone marrow registry campaign than they had in the last five years.

Her story attracted even the mainstream media, culminating in an appearance on Nightline.

“I saw her on TV and I was just floored by her so I sought her out,” said Jerome Williams, one of many former strangers who are now part of Christine’s life. Williams has leukemia and his own quest to find a marrow donor can be found on his website,

He was one of Christine’s guests at a thanksgiving party that Christine recently gave after getting the good news that she is now cancer-free.

Jerome smiles widely as Christine takes over the dance floor, swaying to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” with the gusto of a teenager. The party’s prom theme was Christine’s choice because aside from its fun connotation, it also signifies an ending of an era, in her case, her battle with cancer.

“I saw her when she has no energy, I saw her in her worst times…so it’s great to see her now living and enjoying life,” Williams said. “When you have a success story like Christine’s, it’s exciting. It gives you hope. It lets you know that you just have to keep on fighting.”

Christine’s plate post-cancer is full but there is one thing that she will definitely make time for: Meeting her bone marrow donor. As is the norm for cases like hers, donors are not allowed to be introduced to patients until after a year. A few weeks after the one-year mark, Christine was finally able to communicate with “my angel,” a 36-year-old Hong Kong resident via e-mail. Christine is not sure if he has Filipino blood but she believes that the fact that she is part Chinese accounted for their partial match.

Christine is currently in the East Coast, spending time with her family but she plans to go back to Los Angeles in the near future to resume her career in films and TV. Here, she talks more about her journey.

Yong B. Chavez: How did it feel going back home?
Christine Pechera: It was very emotional. I was so scared when I left 21 months ago. I’m just so happy to be with family again and to do things I haven’t done in a long time.

YC: Like what?
CP: I went fishing. I grew up near the ocean, in Long Island, so I really like fishing. As I was sitting down, I just kept looking at the sky. I was remembering those days when I was confined in the hospital for 145 days, not allowed to leave my room.

YC: What kept you fighting for your life?
CP: What gave me strength through all this was my faith in God. What kept me fighting was all the support and prayers that were sent my way. Just knowing that there were people praying and cheering from the sidelines kept the fires stoked and helped me to focus when things got downright scary.

There were so many people who were fighting for me: my family, friends, my doctors, my church, other survivors, fighters, supporters and absolute strangers. How could anyone possibly give up when there is an ocean of love all around you, candles being lit in countless churches and temples, and letters being sent from all over the world? One thing I learned is that we are loved more than we know. It is too bad that it takes such a potential tragedy to expose the fact that there truly is goodness everywhere and in all of us, especially where you least expect it.

YC: During the whole ordeal, what was the worst thing that you experienced?
CP: Probably when my boyfriend dumped me after my cancer came back. The timing was just terrible. It was a few days after Valentine’s and it was my first day of chemotherapy. But (the experience) actually made me find my own strength.

YC: Are you seeing someone now?
CP: No. I am currently the most eligible Filipino bachelorette. [laughs] Seriously, I’m happily single.

YC: What was the most surprising thing that you experienced?
CP: The most surprising and upsetting thing was hearing stories of potential donors who were contacted and then refused to donate their marrow. Unfortunately this happens more often among the Asian population. Imagine being told, “We found someone who can save your child’s life but they said ‘No.’” I often cry for those patients who never found a donor, which are many. But my heart simply breaks apart for those patients who did find a donor but died anyway because the donor said “No.” The pain this inflicts on the patient’s family is immeasurable. And imagine being the patient. Being told that your life is not worth someone else’s time? Absolutely tragic.

YC: It sounds like you’ve learned a lot in such a short time.
CP: For sure. I’ve learned that life is truly about love and connections.

YC: You’ve met a lot of people since your ordeal started. What were the worst and best things that anyone has ever told you?CP: I used to have a problem asking for help, and one day, a friend of mine, a fellow patient, told me, “You have to let people help you because by allowing them to help you, they become a part of your healing.” He told me that I have to believe that I’m not a burden, that by accepting help I’m giving someone an opportunity to be a better human being. The worst thing that anyone said was at an interview. A reporter asked this question to my mom: “Christine is already the 3rd of your children who got cancer, so does it get easier with each one?”

YC: Whoa.
CP: Yeah, it was really bad. But don’t mention the reporter’s name. [laughs]

YC: How was the Nightline feature experience? Did this and other media exposure help you?
CP: The Nightline piece was such an important moment for me. On the day of the interview, I didn’t know how much time I had left. It was May and rumor had it that I wasn’t going to make it to the end of summer. We still had not found a donor and time was running out. Originally I thought that by going on national TV, I’d find my donor and hopefully inspire more people to sign up with the National Marrow Donor Program. But what actually happened was so much more.

Soon after the piece aired and right up to this day, I hear from other survivors and caregivers who saw the story. To these people, the story was less about me finding a donor and more about not giving up. About keeping the flag flying high and fighting on despite the incredible odds stacked against you.

At that point I didn’t know if I was going to survive, but it gave me solace to know that all this uncertainty, suffering and pain was turning into a story of hope, strength and faith. No matter what God had planned for me, at least I knew that others were being helped.

YC: What’s next for you?
CP: I will go back to work, doing what I love best which is film and TV. I’m also writing. I am a contributor to this book called “Writing for Wellness” coming out in October. I am also looking at several other book proposals. I will also continue to support bone marrow drives and speak on behalf of patients needing donors. We still need to put Filipinos on the registry. I am very busy and I love it. What’s next for me, really, is the rest of my life.

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