Putting Her Armor On
An acute myeloid leukemia survivor and former TV news reporter finds a new reason to help others improve their health.
By Jennifer Walker
At the Fox 7 television station in Austin, Texas, Loriana Hernandez-Aldama was the clean-living, fitness-loving health reporter. “When I helped people get fit or change their lives, that fueled me,” she says as she sits on her back patio in Ashburn, Virginia, where she now lives.
Three years after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in 2014, Hernandez-Aldama, 44, is now even more motivated to share her passion for fitness. She learned from her doctors after her diagnosis that the amount of chemotherapy her body could handle correlated with her overall health and fitness. The advantage gave her a greater chance of survival, the doctors said. With that in mind, Hernandez-Aldama created ArmorUp for Life, a nonprofit with a mission to encourage people to eat well, exercise and improve their work-life balance so their bodies and minds are better able to face future health challenges.
“It’s not about prevention; it’s about preparedness,” she says. “It’s about preparing your body and mind for the fight.”
A Year-Long Battle
In January 2014, Hernandez-Aldama, who had previously left Fox 7, was about to move from Texas to Virginia to be with her husband, Cesar, who was already working in the area. The couple had just bought a home in Ashburn, Virginia, about 35 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., and Hernandez-Aldama was hoping to get another broadcasting job. She was also undergoing fertility treatment to have a second child to join the couple’s then 20-month-old son, Gabriel. On the day she was to have an embryo transfer, her doctor decided to perform a precautionary blood test first. The next day, he told her the test result had led him to believe she had cancer.
To confirm the diagnosis, Hernandez-Aldama saw an oncologist, who performed a bone marrow biopsy that revealed she had AML, a fast-growing cancer that starts in the bone marrow and can quickly move into the blood and sometimes to other parts of the body. Hernandez-Aldama was not a typical AML patient: The average age of patients with AML is 67; she was 41 when she was diagnosed.
Hernandez-Aldama immediately turned her attention to finding a doctor. Through his work, Cesar had a connection at the Washington Redskins, a professional football team that works closely with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. A team representative told Hernandez-Aldama to contact medical oncologist Mark Levis at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore. Hernandez-Aldama made phone calls and turned to Facebook and Twitter, telling her contacts she had cancer and needed to get in touch with Levis. Less than a day after she was diagnosed, Levis called her after reviewing her test results. On the call, he made it clear just how advanced her cancer was.
“He said, ‘Get on a plane, and get here right away. There’s a bed waiting for you. You can’t wait,’ ” she says. Levis said Hernandez-Aldama had cytogenetically normal AML, meaning she had a shortage of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, making her susceptible to infections, fatigue, weakness and abnormal bleeding. Forty to 50 percent of people with AML have this type of disease.
Hernandez-Aldama and her husband arranged for Gabriel to stay with her mother in Atlanta, but she didn’t expect to be away from her son for long. After all, as a health reporter, she had interviewed people being treated for cancer who were living at home. “I thought I was going to get a little chemo, and then I’d see him in two weeks,” she says of Gabriel.
When she got to the hospital, Hernandez-Aldama learned from Levis that AML is treated with multiple rounds of chemotherapy that could last up to a year. From the end of January to mid-August, she stayed at the hospital for several cycles of intense chemotherapy, each lasting 40 days or more, followed by a two-week break between each round. Side effects included exhaustion, mouth sores, muscle pain and chills. The treatments also destroyed her normal cells along with leukemia cells, which caused her to have neutropenia—low levels of the white blood cells called neutrophils that help fight infection. Hernandez-Aldama often felt too weak to get out of bed, but she forced herself to walk laps around the hospital floor.
While in treatment, she was alone for most of the day until Cesar finished work and visited in the evening. She was able to see Gabriel only during the two-week breaks between cycles. Her eyes well up with tears when she describes phone calls with Gabriel during her hospital stay. “How many more sleeps?” he would ask, meaning how many more nights before he would see his mother. Not knowing the answer, Hernandez-Aldama would simply say, “Soon, baby, soon.”
In August 2014, Hernandez-Aldama completed her fourth round of chemotherapy and went home. Her doctor told her a follow-up bone marrow biopsy would look for abnormal blood cells; if none were spotted, she would be in remission. In early September, the biopsy was performed. As part of a study she had signed up for, researchers also examined the bone marrow’s stem cells, the precursors of blood cells. Three weeks later, doctors called with the news that the stem cells still harbored cancer and that a bone marrow transplant was the only way to treat it. Patients who make it through a bone marrow transplant have about a 70 percent chance of being cured, Levis says.
Hernandez-Aldama’s older sister, a transplant match, went through a battery of tests to be sure she was healthy enough to donate. Once the sister's good health was established, the procedure was performed in late October. Afterward, while Hernandez-Aldama waited for the new bone marrow to graft and begin producing normal blood cells, she stayed alone in a family residential facility on the Johns Hopkins campus. For about two months, doctors gave her blood transfusions to manage low red blood cell counts, monitored her for infections and gave her antibiotics if infections occurred. Family and friends could visit, but she could only leave the facility for medical appointments or for walks and car trips in which her exposure to others would be minimal.