Cancer survivors share laughter, tears at Celebration of Life

Former patient Piyush Ved and his wife, Swati, at the Celebration of Life event. While hospitalized, Piyush joked with nurses that he wanted to be called the King of 6-East, so they bought him a crown and septor.

When Piyush Ved and his wife, Swati, took the stage at a reunion of blood cancer survivors, they talked about important dates.

“Everyone has dates in their lives they remember. Birthdays, anniversaries and happy stuff!” said Swati. “But we have a few more dates.”

There was the date that Piyush was diagnosed with a rare esophageal cancer in 2016, which was successfully treated. Then, another date pushed its way into their lives. On January 12, 2018, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

“You never think you’re going to get cancer in your 30’s, let alone two cancers before the age of 40,” said Piyush, 39.

The Veds were among a dozen speakers who recounted their cancer journeys at the 17th annual Celebration of Life event held at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in September and hosted by the UCLA Health Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant program. More than 150 people attended, including family members, doctors, nurses and eight current patients who were able to leave their hospital beds and come to the hospital auditorium.

“Going through a stem cell transplant is one of the hardest things anyone can do. It requires a lot support from family and friends and a positive attitude,” said Neela Patel, a nurse case manager with the bone marrow and stem cell transplant unit. “When our former patients come back and share their stories, it helps the current patients realize that they too can get through it.”

The stem cell transplant process is intense and challenging, requiring about 60 days in the hospital that typically includes chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment, as well as a transplant using the patient’s own stem cells or those of a healthy donor. For qualifying patients, UCLA is one of three hospitals nationwide to offer an outpatient stem cell transplant program that helps patients and family members maintain a better quality of life.

One way to maintain a better quality of life is to stay active during treatment.  “You’ve got to do your walking laps around the hospital unit,” said Dr. John Timmerman, a UCLA oncologist. He encourages patients to have something that they can look forward to after treatment.

The event also highlighted alternative therapies and activities to help patients to complement traditional medicine.

Kenli Matthus, a professional musician who volunteers with the nonprofit Musicians On Call, spoke about his work with patients to help them process their experience by creating original songs that are then recorded.

Monica Lau, a yoga instructor who underwent a stem cell transplant in 2005, eventually became a volunteer with the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program. She described how the program offers patients such alternatives as yoga and Reiki therapy, nutrition counseling and contemplative care/mindful awareness exercises.

Michelle Mauga recounted the journey of her late husband, Vincent, who succumbed to his illness, bringing some of those in attendance to tears. Mauga spoke of the many people who supported them and became like family. Near the end of her husband’s life, the couple participated in the hospital’s 3 Wishes Project, which grants small wishes to dying patients. Their wish was to move Vincent from the medical intensive care unit back to the Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant unit so that he could be near the nurses and doctors who were familiar to him.

In addition to tears, there was also some laughs as a former patient recalled a lighter memory.

Andrew Ruane had a bone marrow transplant in 1976 at age 33. He underwent difficult rounds of chemotherapy and a transplant, which left him very weak. One day, his wife and mother took him by wheelchair outside the hospital to the nearby Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. Traversing the steep trail, they lost control of the wheelchair, sending him careening down the path before they caught and stopped his chair.

“I had come so far with my treatment, and it was so difficult, and then I was almost killed by my wife and my mother!” joked Ruane. “But my message is that you get lucky, think positive, get support from family and friends and you will get well again--and back on your feet.”


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