Battling Bruin: Derek

Posted September 2015

I first noticed something was amiss when I was a 12-year-old in junior high. I was playing basketball and had trouble running the length of the court without losing my breath. Shortly thereafter, I developed flu-like symptoms: coughing, a loss of energy and nausea. I was taken to a local military clinic (my father was a physician’s assistant in the Navy) where x-rays showed an abnormality in my chest. The first person to read the x-ray thought it was pneumonia, however my father thought it looked more serious than that and insisted that I be seen at the nearest major hospital - which was the Naval hospital in Oakland. There, doctors realized that the x-rays hadn’t revealed pneumonia, but rather a large mass in my chest. The surgeons at the hospital thought that it might be operable, so I was scheduled for open chest surgery. However once the surgeons me opened up, they realized the full extent of the problem: the mass extended along my lungs and had a “tail” which wrapped around my heart. There was no way of removing the tumor that wouldn’t risk my life on the operating table. So, the doctors just took a small biopsy of the tumor, but otherwise left it as it was and closed me back up.

The biopsy revealed that I had late-stage Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time, treatment for this form of cancer wasn’t nearly as effective as it can be now. The oncologists in Oakland told my parents not to expect me to live through the summer (it was spring at the time). At that point, my options for treatment were either to stay in Oakland or be treated at the Naval Hospital in San Diego. We had family in San Diego, so we opted to go there for my treatment.

The oncologists in San Diego were far more optimistic than the ones we experienced in Oakland. They had been using a new experimental protocol that had been developed at St. Jude’s hospital and were seeing remarkable results. While the journey ahead of me would be difficult, the doctors in San Diego gave us reason for hope. And hope can be very, very powerful. I was given an intensive cocktail of chemotherapy (both intravenously and into my spinal fluid) which resulted in all of the usual side effects: hair loss, nausea (the game-changing anti-nausea drug Zofran didn’t exist yet), weakness, steroid bloating, etc. But there was also one other result, the tumor was shrinking! Within a few months, the tumor wasn’t noticeable on x-rays at all. However, because cancer can still lurk on a cellular level, the protocol (which included drugs that have been so effective, they are now used as part of the standard care today) required that I continue receiving chemotherapy for another two years.

The first months of my treatment were pretty difficult and limited my quality of life. However, I was eventually able to resume a somewhat “normal” life, which included going back to school. My treatments concluded my freshman year of high school, and once I was no longer missing a lot of school days for treatments, I excelled. I was named my high school valedictorian and was admitted to my dream school: UCLA! Ultimately on campus, I met my wife, made friends for life, saw UCLA’s most recent national championship in basketball, and received a B.S. in biology and M.P.H. in epidemiology.

A decade later, my son Tyler would be diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as well. His story has been detailed in a previous Battling Bruins episode. His journey unfortunately included far more setbacks than mine, having relapsed twice and requiring a bone marrow transplant; however his strength, both emotional and physical, has been relentless. The support we’ve received from so many people, especially the UCLA family and the Spirit Squad has been immeasurable. Without it, I don’t know that we’d be where we are today: five years cancer-free!

One of the many, many lessons we’ve learned from all of this is to celebrate the moment. This is one of the reasons why I am so committed to supporting the UCLA Spirit Squad (another is simply to say “thank you” for all that you’ve done). The Spirit Squad embodies the type of enthusiasm and relentless optimism that has been so powerful in our lives. As one gets older, it can often be difficult to maintain that outlook. They remind me of the possibilities and hope and the life has to offer…

Go Bruins!
Derek Cordova ’95

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