My Sister Was Diagnosed with Leukemia at Age 3

I hope you have tissues ready, because I cried and teared up a lot when telling this story with my dad and sister. I brought in my little sister, who is 27 now, who had leukemia when she was three years old. I also brought in my dad to tell the story of how she got diagnosed, because I was too young to remember a lot of it. My parents made the decision to take her to Mexico, and this post will be about what that was like emotionally and how it has impacted my sister’s life ever since then. I hope you enjoy this story, but I know cancer is a hard and sensitive topic. It gets pretty raw and emotional. My dad’s name is Rick and my sister’s name is Erica. Together, the three of us will tell this story. 

A Quick Overview 

When my little sister Erica was three, she was diagnosed with leukemia. My parents initially took the traditional route and took her to the hospital and had her treated. I’ll let my dad tell more details of the story because I was young. Probably six or seven. So eventually what they ended up doing was taking her down to Mexico and getting her treated with more natural methods. It’s actually a really cool story. And my little sister is obviously here today, 24 years in remission. She has an amazing, beautiful little boy Banner who’s six now. We are going to tell her story about what it was like back then and what they did when they were in Mexico.

Finding Out Erica Was Sick

Rick: Well, Erica is a January baby. So this was just before Christmas and we were out Christmas shopping and Erica was still 2 years old. We were living back East and it was a long day. She was wanting people to carry her, saying her legs hurt. We were like, “Come on just a little while longer, you can do it.” In the days following, we noticed that her complexion was really super pale.

Erica: Paler than I already am!

Rick: Yeah, and she just wasn’t acting right. So we took her to the doctor and the doctor really didn’t say too much to us, but he referred us to a research hospital. When we got up there, they did a bunch of blood work they diagnosed her with leukemia. She had a rare type of leukemia. They told us they’d only seen one other case like hers at the time. It was a combination of type AML and ALL and they talked to us about it and wanted to put her in a protocol study. 

Natalie: What was that like? I mean, hearing the news that your child had leukemia. I mean, what was that like for you?

Rick: Pretty devastating. And it was really helpless feeling because we didn’t have any background or experience in leukemia or cancer or any major illness. We just flat out didn’t know what to do. So they put her in a protocol study. I guess they were sort of using her as a Guinea Pig because they didn’t know how to treat this. So they were going to try different things with her because they had never seen other children with this. They wanted to keep her in the hospital for four weeks, treating her, then let her out for four weeks. Then they wanted to treat her for another four weeks and then they wanted to do a bone marrow transplant. And we just had a little baby, my son Derek, and he was six months old. He was a perfect bone marrow donor match, which is really hard to find.

They told us that the process wasn’t a big deal, but it actually was a very, very serious thing to take his bone marrow, but I’ll get into that a bit later. So we put her in the hospital and they started treating her. 

A High Fever and a Spiritual Experience 

Rick: We had a friend who was a chiropractor kinesiologist, and we were kind of consulting with him a little bit to see if there were things we could do naturally for her. He suggested that we give her liquid thymus and liquid shark cartilage. By no means am I recommending this, it’s just what he was telling us to do. So with the kinesiology, he did some muscle testing on her and he said he thought these things would help her.

We tried to talk to the doctors about this and they didn’t want anything to do with it and they wouldn’t let us bring it into the hospital, so we would actually sneak it into the hospital and give it to her. We also tried to put an air filter in her room because in hospitals there’s germs and stuff all over. Her immune system was basically nonexistent. So we were really worried about her contracting something at the hospital, but they wouldn’t allow us to put an air filter in a room because they couldn’t figure out how to charge us for the electricity it would use.

About three weeks into the first series of treatments, Erica got a super high fever. One night, I believe it was about 105, and they couldn’t determine what was causing the fever. If it was a bacteria, a virus, they didn’t know what it was. They were giving her all kinds of antibiotics and ice baths and trying to try to bring her temperature down because it’s very damaging to have a fever that high. I stayed with her that night and very early in the morning, her fever just broke out of nowhere. She woke up and started asking me for her fish. I said, “Erica, what fish? What are you talking about?” And she said, “My big fish and my little fish with sharp teeth.” The room she was in was a children’s room. …I’m probably going to cry right here. 

The room had a border on the top of the ceiling that had an aquatic scene with little fish and starfish and stuff like that. And I pointed at it and said, “Those fish, Erica?” And she goes, “No, Daddy, my little fish and my big fish with the sharp teeth.” I didn’t really understand what she was talking about. So I just kind of let it go. Well later that day we got a phone call from a friend of the kid’s mom that lived in Utah. He is a shaman and he practices shamanism. He’d never met Erica or even seen her. But he called up and he said, “Something really weird happened last night. I just wasn’t feeling right. So I went for a walk and as I was walking, I started feeling really sick. So I sat down by a tree and I started having kind of like a vision. In this vision I saw Erica…” and he went on to describe his dream.

He said she came up to him and said, “I need some help.” And as he was looking at her, he said that she had black stripes through her body. He said he’d seen similar things in dreams before of sick people that were kind of splotchy and stuff, but he’d never seen anything like the way she looked. And he said, “I don’t know how to help you.” And she said, “Come with me and I’ll show you what to do.” So she took his hand and led him over to a body of water. He didn’t specify if it was an ocean. He said it was big, you couldn’t see across it. They gathered up wood and built a great big fire and the fire burnt down to coals and she had him grab her hands and asked him to lift, and he lifted a full grown spirit out of her body. He described the spirit and said she was beautiful, with long hair. The spirit told him to lay the body in the fire, and the body burned down to ashes. And then they went over and got water and reformed the body. And as soon as they had done that, two sharks swam up. A big shark and a little shark. She asked him to lay her body in the mouth of the big shark. The sharks swam away, and a little while later they came back and she had him take her body out of the shark’s mouth and just set her spirit back down inside her little body. And she said, “I’m healed.” That correlated perfectly with her fever that she had in the hospital. 

The Leukemia Was Gone 

The day after that happened, they did a T-Scan to check for white blood cells, and the leukemia was gone. She still had one week left in the first four weeks of the treatment and we left her in the hospital to continue that, but the leukemia remained gone. So after the first four weeks, we took her home and we started trying to figure out what to do because the hospital was still trying to push us to have the next four weeks of treatment and continue on with the bone marrow transplant because they were doing the protocol study. There was a lot of money on the line that they were getting, and I’m not saying that that was their whole reason, I don’t know their whole reason for wanting to continue this.

To me, it didn’t make any sense to do all that when she was in remission. It made sense to me to save it for later when and if the leukemia ever came back. So we contacted a cellular biologist in California and they had us collect samples from around our house, from Erica’s hair, and different things. They did testing and determined that there were some environmental factors that were probably a big influence on her little system at the time that caused it to contract this.

Natalie: Weren’t you telling me it was like the lead pipes in the house we were in?

Rick: There was asbestos and lead and, some issues with baby powder, I can’t remember all of it right now. We determined at that time because she was in remission that we weren’t going to continue with the protocol study. The doctors got furious with us and contacted child protective services. They contacted the state we were living in, the attorney general, and were trying to take custody of Erica and our six month old, Derek, who was the bone marrow match. 

Natalie: I mean for Derek to do a bone marrow transplant that could have possibly killed him at that age, right? It’s a huge needle isn’t it?

Rick: It was a pretty dangerous procedure for a six month old baby. Yeah. They have to draw the bone marrow out from inside the bone and it’s painful.

Natalie: So at that point, you’re scared at first finding out your daughter has leukemia, then happy it was gone. Then all of a sudden, the state is threatening to take your children away from you. How did you even wrap your head around it? Having two kids myself, I can’t imagine it. 

Rick: Well, when you’re actually facing a situation like that, you have two choices. You can curl up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself and let things happen or you can try to figure it out. We just tried to figure it out and tried to fight for the kids. We ended up talking with Department of Health and Welfare Child Services and through their work with us they determined that we were competent parents. But they told us that we had to have Erica treated somewhere. We had to continue her treatment.

When you’re actually facing a situation like that, you have two choices. You can curl up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself and let things happen or you can try to figure it out.

Natalie: Did you tell him the story about the sharks and stuff? I mean, that’s kind of a crazy story. 

Rick: Uh, no, I didn’t, haha. It may be out there for some people, but it’s real, I really believe that. It’s a miracle to me. It’s a miracle how the leukemia left her and I believe it had something to do with the fever. I think that the high temperature had something to do with the destruction of those leukemia cells. I don’t really know. I’m not a doctor, I don’t have a lot of medical background, but that’s my belief. 

Natalie: Well, and you have to understand too, we were just a normal American family at that point. Even being open enough to listen to your chiropractor kinesiologist friend shows a lot of trust and faith. But I guess you saw the proof that cancer was gone.

Starting Treatment in Mexico 

Rick: So, the state said we had to start having Erica treated somewhere. So we started doing some research to figure out how to help her and how to keep her healthy. We ended up finding some information about a clinic that was in Mexico. I’m not sure the clinic exists anymore, but at the time it was called American Metabolics. The doctor was Geronimo Rubio, and this was back in 1994.

Natalie: So mom had the three older kids from her first marriage, and then you guys had Erica and Derek. You have four kids at home, and one kid in the hospital. How did you actually manage that? Being at the hospital with Erica and trying to work and pay bills and figure out how you’re gonna take her to Mexico? I mean, what was that like?

Rick: I’m not really sure how we managed to do that it was all a blur. We had to take turns at the hospital and take turns with the kids at home and try to keep everything as normal as we possibly could. 

Erica: All I remember is dad being there all the time.

Natalie: I don’t have a lot of memories from that time. I was young, but I do remember visiting you in the hospital, Erica. And I remember we had to wear masks when we visited you. But I mean I have maybe one memory from that. Do you have any memories from the hospital?

Erica: Not the first one. I have a memory down in Mexico, I don’t feel like I made this up in my head, but we were in the room and there was like a patio or balcony. The doors were open and I remember dad sleeping on the bed. I think I had just woken up from a nap because I was in a different head space. And I have another memory of a little girl I used to play with down there. She was a patient at the hospital in Mexico as well. 

Natalie: So you found this hospital. How did you make the decision that you were going to bring Erica to Mexico and that mom was going to stay? Was that a hard decision? 

Rick: Well, at the time, we thought your mom was doing well in a multilevel business, though the real story is a little more confusing (read that story about my mom here), so we decided she’d stay here because we thought she was doing well at it and it made more sense for her to stay here and do that. I was pretty much the one who took care of you guys all the time anyways, so we decided I’d go down to Mexico to handle that.

Natalie: Just for some background about Rick, he’s technically my ex stepdad. However, he is my dad, and he raised me. I always joke, but I’m not joking, he’s the only reason I can have normal relationships with people. I turned out normal and functioning. I have my issues, but he’s a good, good man. He raised all of us and he didn’t have to. We were his step kids and then his ex step kids and he always treated us like his own. He’s my person. That’s the person I call when I have problems and he’ll give you tough love and he’ll tell you straight up and sometimes he’ll even yell at you. But then he always finishes with, “You know, I love you, right?” I know that’s not the topic at hand, but my dad is a good, good, good man.

Rick: So we ended up taking her to the clinic in Mexico. I think we were there for eight weeks the first time and eight weeks the second time. I don’t remember how far apart it was. In Mexico,  their whole deal was trying to help your body rebuild its strength and rebuild the immune system and keep the cancer from progressing while they build the body to be strong enough to destroy what you have. Erica’s leukemia was gone, but the treatments they gave her in the United States basically left her crippled. She could barely walk, all of her hair was falling out, her fingernails and toenails were deformed, and she was skinny as a rail. I used to joke that she looked like Smeagol from Lord of the Rings or the Crypt Keeper!  

Erica: I used to always wear a pink Power Ranger costume.

Rick: Everywhere she went, she had to have her the pink Power Ranger costume and it made her feel strong. I guess it made her confident and, and made her feel like she could deal with the things that were happening to her. So in Mexico, all the food they gave us was organic. They fed us shark meat, chicken, all kinds of organic foods. They did a lot of natural therapies, oxygen therapy, radio frequency therapy, massage therapy, and they also cultured a vaccine with some of her blood cells to help with keeping the leukemia away. They basically just rebuilt her health and, and we were down there twice over two eight week periods and we brought her home with smokin’ good health. 

The second time we were down there when we were coming home, we were at the border. The hospital had a limousine that would take you from America to Mexico and back. At that time, you didn’t need passports or birth certificates or anything. You could just cross back and forth. Usually it wasn’t a big deal, but we got to the border to cross from Mexico into America. I don’t know if this American border guard just had a bad day or what his deal was, but he was giving us trouble and didn’t want to let us bring Erica back into the United States. I couldn’t understand why, but he thought I might be kidnapping her or sneaking her into the states. Which didn’t make any sense, if she was being kidnapped she’d be taken out of the states not into the states. I guess sometimes they disguise kids from being recognized by shaving their hair, and Erica didn’t have any hair. But it was pretty obvious that she was a cancer patient just by the way she looked. And we had her medications and stuff with us when we were traveling. So it was pretty obvious that she had been down there for treatment, but he was just having a real bad day. Finally a supervisor came up and told the guy to leave us alone and let us get on with our day. That was a big blessing because I didn’t know what to do.

After Treatment 

Natalie: So you guys came back to where we lived on the east coast. Did you have any continuing treatment that you had to do with Erica? I’d love to hear about how our diet changed, or what you guys did differently after your time spent in Mexico. 

Rick: Erica’s diet changed a lot, but we didn’t really change it for everyone. Just because that’s a really hard way for a family to eat. But yeah, we tried to keep her diet really clean and to keep her away from sugar and processed foods and that type of thing.

Erica: That’s actually the diet that I have to be pretty strict with now as an adult because I have a lot of allergies and autoimmune sensitivities. I’ll get a lot of skin issues and joint issues caused by  inflammation. No grains. I’m not supposed to have any grains because it causes more inflammation. No dairies, we’ve always known that since I was little, but the grain thing’s pretty new.

Rick: Another thing we had to do when we got back is not one of Erica’s favorite stories… So, a lot of little kids have trouble taking pills. And Erica was one of those kids that had trouble taking pills, and there were a lot of pills that she had to take. We had to take her pills and grind them up in a mortar and pestle and then we would mix them with purified water. We’d put them in a syringe and we’d have to squirt them in her bum so they would be absorbed through her intestines because she couldn’t swallow the pills. Well, we were out shopping one day and it was time for her to take her medicine. So I took her into the bathroom into the stall to give her her medicine and I was in there getting it ready. And she started screaming, “No daddy, not in the butt!” In the public bathroom in a huge store. I was thinking to myself, “Oh my gosh, I am going to get arrested!”

Natalie: Oh no! That’s funny. I don’t know if I heard that story. Maybe I forgot it…

Erica: I haven’t! 

Natalie: Haha, I bet! Dad, did you have to go back to the hospital on the east coast? Did they make you go back in and keep getting her tested ?

Rick: No, it wasn’t very long after this second trip to Mexico that we moved back to Idaho and we kind of thought that we’d put it all behind us. But we hadn’t been here very long when we got a call from the cancer research department at St. Lukes in Idaho. They contacted us and said we need to go in and have her blood tested. We took her in, she was still in remission, and everything was good. From that point on they kind of left us alone.

Natalie: Erica, I know you have some scars, tell me about that.

Erica: I’ve got some scars on my arms, and a pretty decent sized scar on my neck. I have a port in my neck under my skin still where they gave me the medicine. So I’ve got the port there and then I have a decent sized scar, about the size of my hand, between my breasts. I’ve got two scars on my arms, one on my left arm and then about a quarter sized scar on my right arm. And then quite a few different ones around my waist. On my left arm, there’s a divot where there’s no muscle around my tricep where they gave me the shot.

Rick: The scar on the chest was from the incision where they put in the tube to give her the medication at the hospital in America. The scars on her arm were from Mexico. Those are where they gave her the vaccine, the culture from her white blood cells. The one on her left arm did kind of swell up and come to a head and popped. I’m not sure why. 

Natalie: As an adult, Erica, having those scars, or even as a kid growing up, was that something you were self-conscious about?

Erica: I would say more growing up because I’d always have people ask me what it was. Of course, being as young as I was when I had leukemia, I didn’t really know. It was so normal to me, so those questions made me realize it was weird to others. Now as an adult, it doesn’t really bother me. I mean, when I was going to Boise State, I was living in an apartment and my neighbor thought the one on my arm was a cigarette burn. She was like, “Oh, does your mom burn you with cigarettes too?” And I’m just like, “No no no.” But they don’t bug me too much. The port’s not very noticeable. I think I probably had more issues with them when I was going through puberty.

Natalie: Dad, did you have any fears when she was getting older that the cancer would come back?

Rick: Every time she got sick it would just scare me to death. Every time.

Erica: That’s usually the first thing they check when I do get sick. My husband Max, he always calls me a medical anomaly because I have always got something wrong with me. Or there’s something wrong that they can’t quite figure out.

Natalie: So now as an adult, Erica, do you think about it often? Or is it just kind of one of those things that you went through when you were little? How does it impact your life as an adult from a health perspective?

Erica: I’ve been dealing with some stuff recently with my left arm. I have an old injury on that arm and there are joint issues and skin issues. Sometimes it gets a little discouraging because there’s always something wrong. Now I’m going to cry… You have to kind of come to terms with the fact that you’re never gonna be normal. Not that anybody’s normal. They mentioned when I was younger, I was never going to be able to have kids but I do have my son Banner now, and he’s the biggest blessing. I also struggle with depression and anxiety pretty bad. But I also have a dad who was willing to do literally everything to make sure that I would see another day. Now it’s just a matter of making sure that I’m going to be okay for my son. Sometimes you get in a rut in life where you think life’s a little unfair, as we all do. But I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve got all my siblings, my dad, my son, and my husband. 

As an adult it’s just hard and I can’t do everything by myself. I am very independent, to a fault. My husband will tell you that, but that’s the way my dad taught me to be. But I also have to take a step back and realize I’ve got health problems and I can’t do it all on my own or work myself into the ground, because I have a tendency to do that. 

Natalie: I’m sure there’s a lot of people listening who can relate to these feelings, even if their story isn’t the exact same. Maybe they’ve gone through hard things, and they struggle with being stuck in the victim mentality, where everything feels unfair. Maybe they ask why God did this to them, or why they got picked to have cancer. What’s one thing, one piece of advice you would give them when they’re stuck in that feeling?

Erica: That’s hard to answer because I feel like dad never let me feel like I was a victim. He taught me how to fight just like he did. Either lay down and curl up in a ball or you can fight back. I’m a scrappy little thing and I think it’s just the mindset that Dad really instilled in us at a young age. And I mean I went through the “teenage angst” thing pretty hard. I never thought Dad was mean or anything, I mean he raised seven kids on his own, but there were a lot of mental health issues I was dealing with that I didn’t know I was dealing with or how to deal with. As an adult seeking help, I think that’s the most important thing is realizing it’s okay to seek help or to even just go talk to somebody.

Natalie: I talk about that in my podcast a lot. I used to think only people with problems go to therapy. When I started going, it just made me realize I had all this old stuff that I didn’t even know existed. It was causing problems and it helped me work through so many of those.

Rick: I didn’t understand therapy at the time. So I would just run, like Forrest Gump. When I was stressed out, I would run. But one thing that I believe is that God doesn’t do this stuff to us. We’re in a world where there’s environmental issues, life choice issues. There’s a whole bunch of things that can cause things that could have a negative impact in our lives. It’s not somebody doing something to us. It’s just that life happens. You just have to stay positive and work through it. And if you need to find support, then find support. I always tell the kids, if you dwell on the negative, that’s what you’re going to experience in life. If you dwell on the positive, that’s what you’re going to experience in life. We ultimately have the ability to choose happiness or sadness. It really is a choice. It’s hard to choose to be positive and to be happy and to be enthusiastic, but it’s a choice we all have to make. 

Natalie: I think one of the things that I love that my dad has done is that he raised good kids. Every holiday, my dad hosts everybody at his house and he built a big bass pond in his backyard and the kids love jumping into the pond. For me, that’s one of my favorite things that we do as a family. We get together often, and we love each other. I know if I screw up bad, I know I can call you guys and you will still love me through it.

So Dad, if there’s another parent listening and maybe they found out their child has cancer, what would you say to them? You guys too the Mexico route, but do you think everybody should go that route? I remember you said one time that there were people who weren’t as sick as Erica, who didn’t make it… 

Rick: Some people just flat have trouble handling the healthy lifestyle protocol and they go right back to the way they were living before they went down and that can be problematic. I don’t have the answer there. I believe in the power of the universe. I believe the universe has the power to call us home regardless of how hard we try not to go. All I can say is that I am very thankful that things worked out with Erica and that she’s still with us. Because it could have easily gone the other way. The point of this conversation isn’t to say if you go to Mexico your kid is going to be healed, or your cancer is going to be healed. This is just the experience that we had. Sometimes no matter how hard you work, or how hard you pray, or what you do, you lose the battle. I guess my advice would be to live life and enjoy the time you have with your kids and your family. Always have love and kind words so that there’s no regrets about the time that you do have.

Sometimes no matter how hard you work, or how hard you pray, or what you do, you lose the battle. I guess my advice would be to live life and enjoy the time you have with your kids and your family. Always have love and kind words so that there’s no regrets about the time that you do have.

Natalie: I also think you did a good job raising us with healthy habits, trying to stay active, and eating healthy foods. It’s not like we only ate a super strict diet all the time. We didn’t, but I think everything I’m doing now, the heart of that came from what we experienced growing up. We saw the power of everything you learned in Mexico. It’s what we’d call clean eating today. It wasn’t vegan or anything, but it was all organic, free-range types of foods. 

Rick: I really do believe that a lot of the problems we have in America are due to our diets and processed foods. I think the cleaner a person can eat, the better off they are. But I also believe that people need to have physical activity. And I think positive attitude has a lot to do with your health. 

Off-Topic, But….

Rick: This is totally off topic. But before we are done, I need to tell a little story on Natalie. Natalie, when she was a teenager was kind of a Messy Bessy and her room was down in the basement of the house. I used to tell her, you need to keep your stuff picked up because that’s what causes bugs and stuff to gather. Which is funny because her house is very clean now.  She went to put on a pair of pants one day and a wolf spider came out of them and she about came unglued! 

Natalie: I remember that! I screamed like a little girl. I ran upstairs and my dad just said, “I told you you should have cleaned your room.” 

Rick: Another time, some guy decided that he was tired of her stuff being messy. So he took all of her underwear and hung in the tree in the front yard.

Natalie: Some guy being my dad! I came home and I was mortified! My bras, my underwear were all hanging from the tree. I’m pretty sure I’d come over with a group of friends too. In high school, our house was the hangout place because my dad’s just fun. It used to piss me off because all my friends would come over and they wouldn’t want to hang out with me, they wanted to hang out with my dad. I remember when you did that, I was so mad and you just said, “Well you should’ve listened. You should have cleaned your room.” I was really messy. Even when I first lived on my own I was messy. It’s as I got older that I started being OCD about a clean house. Dad actually instilled this in us because he likes his house really clean. 

That was off topic, but that’s what happens when you interview family! Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, let us know! I know cancer is such an emotional subject because so many of us have lost people to cancer. We’re not saying this is the only way to handle such a terrible diagnosis, and we aren’t trying to be insensitive to anybody else’s situation. My dad lost his brother, and we’ve lost a lot of people to cancer. But we’re just sharing our experience and telling our story because I think it is a really powerful story. And it’s amazing that Erica is here today and is as healthy as she is.

Take care, and thanks so much for reading!

xo Natalie

P.S. I also cover this story on my podcast if you’d like to give it a listen! Click HERE!

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I’m Natalie

Ten years ago I started out in the online world in the fitness space. I started blogging, sharing at-home exercises, and offering easy recipes. This turned into writing eBooks — one of which blew up in a way I could never imagine!

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