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Alejandra Mendez remembers every detail. Her son Pablo’s blue hat, his yellow boots, teetering as he balanced on the orange line leading to the hospital admissions department.
It was December 11, 2000, and the hospital walls in Boston were decorated with reindeer. A jolly Santa handed out stuffed animals, and Christmas music seemed ever-present.
Alejandra, in her late 20s at the time, hated all of it, but especially the embroidered word she read on the kindly doctor’s white coat: Oncologist. Her only child, just 2, stared up at her with bright blue eyes.
Pablo had clear cell sarcoma of the kidney, a rare and aggressive cancer. The tumor on his right kidney was the size of a melon. The tumor ― and the kidney ― would have to be removed.
Pablo’s cancer was stage IV. What followed was nearly a year of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation.
Finally, after months of treatment, Pablo was in remission.
After treatment, the family returned to Chile. The family had been in Boston so Alejandra’s husband, Pablo Allard, could study for his master’s degree in urban planning. Back at home, Alejandra returned to her university job and got pregnant with her second son, Max. But several months after Max was born, Pablo, 4, started having bad headaches.
It was January 2004, summertime in Chile, and Alejandra thought maybe he was dehydrated. But MRI results were devastating — Pablo had a tumor attached to the back of his brain. The cancer was back.
Alejandra took Pablo back to Boston, but there was little hope he would live.
“This time it was harder because Max was in Chile,” Alejandra said. “I left Max behind, and I was totally broken. And we started again.”
Pablo underwent surgery and more rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. After four or five months, Alejandra’s mother brought Max to the United States so the family could be together.
In May of that year, doctors decided Pablo needed an autologous stem cell transplant ― one that used his own cells.
Then, in August, doctors decided Pablo needed a second stem cell transplant.
Astoundingly, he survived.
A mother knows
Back home in Chile, Alejandra was determined not to let cancer break her. She and her husband decided to have a third baby. She was hoping for a girl, but Antonio arrived, a healthy boy.
Then in 2006, it happened. A yearly checkup showed a tumor in Pablo’s thyroid.
Back to Boston the family went for another surgery to remove the thyroid.
But there was something different about the trip back home.
“I knew he was cured,” she said.
Alejandra realized how privileged she was to take Pablo to the United States for treatment.
She began volunteering at Fundación Nuestros Hijos (Our Children Foundation), an organization dedicated to supporting disadvantaged children with cancer in Chile. Modeled after St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital®, it was created in 1991 by parents whose children had been treated at St. Jude.
Today, she’s a board member of the foundation, which is part of the St. Jude Global Alliance, an international collaboration that brings together foundations and healthcare institutions dedicated to the shared vision of improving access to quality healthcare and increasing survival rates for children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases worldwide. Last June, Alejandra graduated from the ALSAC Global Scholars Program, which trains global foundation partners how to raise revenue to help fight childhood cancer in their own countries. ALSAC is the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude.
No need for words
For 13 years, Alejandra and her family lived in the shadow of cancer’s possible return. But they were happy and enjoyed each other.
Then, in 2019, Pablo started having neck pain. Fortuitously, the family was in Boston again because Pablo Sr. was teaching at his old university for a semester. Imaging showed a tumor on the C1 vertebra.
But it was not cancer, only a benign tumor, and surgery was a success.
Pablo still lives with flashes of his treatment, he said. But he also remembers his family, especially his mother, the pillar of support.
“Without her, I wouldn’t be alive,” he said.
The cancer has been gone so long now that Alejandra has started to think about the future, a day when her son might get married. She hasn’t let go of the worry, but she has begun to allow herself to dream.
“Every single day when I look at Pablo or when he calls, I’m so grateful that he’s here,” she said.
For more information about Fundación Nuestros Hijos, visit https://fnh.cl/.
It is estimated that more than 400,000 children worldwide develop cancer every year, and nearly half of them are never diagnosed. In many countries, 4 in 5 children won’t survive cancer, largely due to the lack of access to quality care. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital believes children all over the world deserve the same chance at survival and is working with healthcare institutions and foundations across the globe to help make that dream a reality.