Diana Sholley, Staff Writer | Contra Costa Times
UPLAND - These days, when Victor Villalobos whoops and hollers, they are screams of joy, not of pain.
For several long years the 25-year-old Upland resident battled a painful, treatment-resisting strain of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but thanks to a bone marrow transplant he received in 2006, Villalobos is alive and in remission.
"I have been given such a gift, a second chance at life and I am so grateful," Villalobos said. "I'm so happy all the time, I go around just screaming for joy."
Villalobos latest reason to shout is a big one.
He is one of only 30 transplant recipients from across the country chosen to ride the Donate Life Rose Parade Float "Seize The Day," through the streets of Pasadena on New Year's Day.
"I am so excited I've been telling everyone I know," he said with a grin that stretched from ear to ear. "Sometimes I forget who I've told and I tell them again."
Villalobos, sponsored by Loma Linda University Medical Center Transplantation Institute, is the first bone marrow transplant recipient to ride on the float.
All that's known about the anonymous female donor is that she gave her sample eight years ago in Michigan, where it's believed she was a college student - and she most likely saved his life.
Villalobos was 18 and had just started Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga when the cancer struck.
"At first I just noticed that I was excessively tired, but I was working and going to school so I just thought it was because of a hectic schedule," he said. "Then it got worse and I was sleeping all the time. If I wasn't in school or at work I was sleeping. All I wanted to do was sleep."
A lump on his throat and skin rash that suddenly appeared behind his legs and quickly spread through his body finally had him call his doctor.
"The doctor ran all kinds of tests," he said. "My liver, kidney and respiratory functions were all low."
A biopsy on the lump brought the the bad news.
"Nothing prepares you to hear that you have cancer," he said. "You may think you are, but believe me, you're not. I cried for three days."
Villalobos began intensive chemotherapy treatments March 5, 2005. They made him violently sick and they weren't helping.
"Chemotherapy takes such a toll on your body," he said. "I was throwing up, had horrible nausea and I hurt all over, but I wouldn't give up, I had too much to live for."
He derived strength from his family, especially his mother, Margarita, who worked nights while caring for her son. At times his family was the only things that kept him going.
"Sometimes the pain was so great I would cry myself to sleep," he said. "I knew that passing away would take away my pain, but that would hurt my family."
The cancer remained unresponsive after a year of traditional chemotherapy and doctors decided to try a more intensive procedure.
After harvesting his bone marrow Villalobos was hit with a strong dose of chemo then had his bone marrow restored.
"My body was completely wasted," he said. "I went from 165 down to 95 pounds, I was skin and bones. I couldn't hold myself up, I needed someone to be with me all the time. I couldn't stand to look at myself in the mirror. I was ready to give up, but my mom helped me get through it."
Doctors decided to try another bone marrow transplant, this time with a donor.
Family members were not a match, but thanks to a Michigan donor, on March 28, 2006, Villalobos would get the transplant.
According to the Donate Life website, after a month and a half in isolation, Victor was told he was well enough to leave the hospital.
But, on the day he was to go home, his health started to spiral downward. He had contracted graft versus host disease, which occurs when functional immune cells in the transplanted marrow recognize the recipient as foreign and attack their host.
Villalobos was admitted into the hospital almost weekly for various complications from the transplant throughout the rest of 2006.
It wasn't until October 2008, after so many years of taking precautions to keep his practically non-existent immune system intact, Villalobos was given some good news.
He was in remission and could go back to school.
Villalobos, who wants to be a video game designer, still battles residual physical effects from the cancer and its treatments. He recently had a hip replacement and walks with a cane, but to him life is good.
"I continue life today with a whole new perspective on everything, the beauty that is life and the world around us," he said. "The gratitude that I feel to someone who just randomly would give a part of herself to help save someone else, is overwhelming."
Villalobos hopes readers will be encouraged by his story and be a donor whether organs, tissues, marrow or blood.
"If not for this transplant I would most likely have died, it was basically one of the last options doctors had," he said. "If not for the people who donate - people like me wouldn't be around."