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Christopher Martinez’s Story

Mar 11, 2021, 16:48 PM by Nicole Young

Christopher Martinez was determined not to let chemotherapy interfere with his daily exercise routine. The Lompoc firefighter started his daily six-mile run and 500 push-ups at 4:30 am to avoid the sun, following a recommendation from his medical oncologist and hematologist Mukul Gupta, MD. Sometimes Christopher would run accompanied by fellow firefighters, friends or family, but most of the time he would push through alone, wrestling with his thoughts, fighting off nausea and fatigue. Christopher knew this physical activity would help him tolerate the chemo, but it was also his way of coping. “I wanted to prove to myself and others that mentally we can get through anything in life – even cancer and a sixmonth chemo regime. I was determined to be stronger from this and turn my cancer diagnosis into a positive,” explains Christopher.

Mr. Martinez and family

A colon cancer diagnosis in May of 2019 came as an incredible shock for the 44-year old in impeccable health. Unusual blood work results discovered during an annual screening required by the Lompoc Fire Department set in motion a series of tests. Sansum Clinic’s David Phreaner, MD, Martinez’s primary care doctor, had given Christopher a clean bill of health just eight months prior during a yearly physical exam. The changed picture over a short amount of time was puzzling. Dr. Phreaner referred Christopher to Sansum Clinic gastroenterologist Vincent DeRosa, MD for a combined endoscopy and colonoscopy. Those procedures and a subsequent biopsy confirmed Christopher had stage II colon cancer. The 2018 exam done by Dr. Phreaner would prove to be an important reference point for Christopher’s care team in tracking how his cancer had developed quickly with no symptoms, and in a non-smoker with no family history of cancer – except that he was a firefighter.

The next step in Christopher’s cancer journey would require the knowledge and skills of surgical oncologist W. Charles Conway, MD, FACS. Dr. Conway’s attention to detail and welcoming, caring manner put Christopher at ease and he patiently answered many questions from Christopher’s wife, Xochitl, and sister, Laura, both nurses at Cottage Hospital. “He listened to all of us,” says Christopher. “It was a big weight off my shoulders.” Dr. Conway successfully removed a large portion of Christopher’s colon, along with 46 lymph nodes, and predicted the firefighter’s overall health and fitness would help him to recover well, which he did. Post-surgery, Christopher and his family took time to choose an oncologist and selected Dr. Mukul Gupta. Christopher appreciated the lengthy consultation with Dr. Gupta that helped them understand all of the important medical information and research which drove his treatment recommendation for the oral chemotherapy drug, Xeloda®. “I felt like he gave me the opportunity to feel empowered in the decision-making process,” notes Christopher.

Once the treatment plan began, the personal attention from his regular care team including nurse practitioner Erica Koeppen, DNP and medical assistants Elizabeth Cuevas and Kathy Judy made Christopher feel at home during his visits. Patient navigator Sam Howland commanded logistics, which he thought especially helped when the brain fog from chemo kicked in. “Sam’s response was always, ‘no problem’,” he relays. Sam introduced Christopher to the multidisciplinary approach purposely incorporated into care at Ridley-Tree Cancer Center, and all of the people and services he could access. Oncology nutrition dietitian Sarah Washburn, MS, RDN, CSO outlined the symptoms he might experience from the chemotherapy, and assisted with a personalized diet as Christopher’s sense of taste began to change. Having lost his mother as a third grader, Christopher battled the emotional weight of seeing his eight year-old daughter, Luisa process his illness at the same age. Oncology social worker April Calderon, MSW met with Luisa several times to work through the stress of having a parent with cancer. Luisa told her father that it was helpful to talk with someone who understood what she was going through. “I was not going to leave my daughter. Sorry, not happening,” Christopher reiterates with his characteristic steely resolve. “But sometimes dealing with cancer, your kids take a lot of that brunt. Ridley-Tree supported that aspect so I could focus on recovery.”

Christopher’s firefighter family contributed funds and placed blue Colon Cancer Awareness stickers on their engines among many actions to support him. But it was the department-sponsored physical exam that saved his life. His Lompoc colleagues could not make sense of how their “healthy hippie” – who they would tease for his University of California, Berkeley education, choice to drive a Prius and mainly plant-based diet – could be the one to have cancer. Firefighters face an increased risk of cancer compared with the general public because of their exposure to carcinogens on the job.

Today, Christopher is in remission and has returned to work, but is now a passionate cancer awareness advocate for first responders and the importance of annual physical exams with blood tests. He wants other cancer patients to know if they choose Ridley-Tree Cancer Center for their care, they are in great hands. “I got an A+ team and I am completely blessed to have this care in my backyard. If you have cancer, this is the perfect place. They are going to set you up for success.” 

Photo caption: The Martinez Family