How leukemia has impacted her life
Just a cold. That’s all he could think when his four-year-old daughter was severely sick for days. It should go away, he thought. But it persisted, and two weeks later, senior Leslie Ligier was still coughing, still vomiting and still not herself.
It got worse, and her parents called an ambulance. Test after test in the hospital, both parents could do nothing but wait for the impending results. The doctors came with news that all parents hope they never have to hear: cancer. Ligier was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).
According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, ALL is cancer of the bone marrow and blood and is the most common cancer in both children and teens. ALL occurs when the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells, which are not able to fight infection and damage the ability of the bone marrow to produce red blood cells and platelets.
In order to fight her leukemia, Ligier underwent chemotherapy, a common treatment for ALL, which uses chemicals to kill cancer cells all over the body. According to the American Cancer Society, during chemo’s most intense phase, people can experience side effects such as changes in weight and hair loss, and may need to spend extended time in the hospital.
As a result of her medication and chemo, Ligier began to gain weight and lose her hair. With the loss of hair, Ligier became insecure and began wearing her hood everywhere she went. This left Ligier vulnerable to older kids who would pull her hood down, and her classmates began to ridicule her. As a way to vent her frustrations, she often wrote in her journal, unable to understand why kids were being mean to her.
In addition to hair loss, Ligier remembers constantly getting shots and taking her medication at 3 a.m., making her body sore and sleep deprived. Depending on her condition, she sometimes spent weeks in the hospital. Ligier remembers crying a lot when her parents told her she had to go to the doctors’ again and could not stay home.
“Overall, it was just being in a constant state of tiredness and fatigue,” Ligier said. “I think it was mostly for my parents, though, they felt that [fatigue] the most because they were the ones that would stay up all night checking on me. They would rotate off sleeping and stuff like that. So I felt like it was not really my place to say that I was tired all the time, [because it was] their sacrifice too.”
Regardless of her experiences, especially when undergoing chemo, Ligier recalls that the doctors would often say that she always had a smile on her face. She credits her optimistic outlook on her condition to her young age, as she herself did not fully realize the consequences of having a serious disease. Her best friend also had leukemia and became her support system at the hospital, making her time there much more enjoyable.
With the support of her family, friends and doctors, Ligier defeated cancer after two and a half years of chemo. A week before she was declared cancer-free, Leslie remembers advice from her favorite doctor and her wish being granted by the Make-a-Wish Foundation: a big dream playground for her backyard.
“I just remember a lot of doctors [were] really happy and there’s one specific doctor: Dr. Dall, she was the best,” Ligier said. “She gave me her stethoscope and [said] maybe one day I’ll become a doctor too, which is something I’m hoping to become later on. I thought that was a pretty cool moment.”
Ligier remembers pretending to be an actual doctor with the stethoscope she received from Dr. Dall. This, along with her desire to genuinely help people, has inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. Her friend, senior Rose Wang who found out that Ligier had leukemia in fifth grade, noticed that Ligier loves to help people.
“Leslie is super high-achieving,” Wang said. “She has the capabilities to get there and I think her becoming a doctor, not only can she help people, she can achieve that high achievement.”
Even though it has been almost 13 years since she had leukemia, the topic is still sensitive in her household. Ligier believes that since her parents could have lost her, they are more protective and value family time over anything. They also constantly tell her to wear layers because her bones are weaker, which makes her body more susceptible to sickness.
“[Leukemia’s] a very sensitive topic, so I never really opened up to a lot of people about it,” Ligier said. “[Only] a select few, but I never really understood why. My parents told me that, it wasn’t okay to tell other people because … [my mom] doesn’t want people [to] think I’m weak or different from them.”
Even though she is cancer-free, there is always a chance that it could return. After she was sent into remission, a term used to describe when a person become cancer free, she had periodic check ups every three months which turned into six, and now once a year. Even though she was only four years old when diagnosed, Ligier credits cancer for shaping her into the person she is today and so does her friend senior Evelyn How.
“I think it’s definitely made her more resilient and stronger,” How said. “If she can bounce back from that [cancer] then she can bounce back from anything. So I think when she has her doubts, she might just think about that [cancer], like ‘I’m strong I can get through this.’”
Ligier developed a new outlook on life and an appreciation for her living situation. She gained a perspective that she would have never had if she was not diagnosed leukemia.
“I think that going through something that difficult makes every other problem you have seem like less of a problem,” Ligier said. “These problems are so small compared to the grand scheme of things. Now I take things in life more with ease, and I try to enjoy life as much as possible. The fact that I had that chance of not getting a chance at life kind of puts everything into perspective. I think, yeah, it just shaped me into a more positive and strong person. Every obstacle I face now, I know it’s going to be over soon.”
Alumnus describes his long-term struggle with anorexia
Through the screen of the FaceTime app, MVHS alumnus Kevin Tan is smiling, sitting in his dorm room at the University of California Santa Barbara. A curtain tapestry of the ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ hangs in the doorway as his roommate casually walks in and out, and a container of protein powder sits to the side of his crowded wooden desk. Observing Tan now, it would seem far-fetched that Tan had been through years of living with anorexia and depression.
Yet, Tan had been struggling with body image since sixth grade, when people around him, including his friends, began making comments about his weight. One memorable instance was when Tan’s friend’s mother commented on his body at his friend’s house.
“She said ‘Oh Kevin you got so much fatter,’” Tan said.
This is just one of many occasions where Tan was made aware of his weight. He recalls his family constantly telling him that he had gotten “a little chubby” and his friends poking his stomach. Tan mentions how East Asian standards of beauty that favor being tall and slender were prevalent in his community growing up.
Family members often made comments about weight gain or weight loss as soon as they greeted Tan, who is not alone in these experiences. In a survey of 283 MVHS students, 58 percent feel pressure from family or friends to be thin.
“If you continuously hear it, it drills into your head and it weighs more on your soul,” Tan said. “It cut at me, and I constantly thought about it. ‘What if this person thinks this about me?’ Everywhere I went, it was really hard to talk to people and communicate.”
It is also known among psychologists that family is a big factor in the development of anorexia. Robin Rosenberg, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders, sheds light upon the culmination of family pressure.
“The biggest one is a family preoccupation with weight, food and appearance, or being teased in other ways, their body shape being an issue,” Rosenberg said. “If your family is really attuned to how you look [...] that is what you learn and what you internalize.”
The constant criticism pushed Tan to control his weight in middle school. He started by cutting what he ate, which quickly evolved into eating less than 300 to 400 calories a day compared to the recommended average of 2,000 calories for teenage boys. He became anorexic.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss, generally occurring as a result of a severe restriction of calories.
Tan started seeing his ribs in the mirror as his condition worsened, but he kept thinking that he had to starve himself further. He felt that he had to get even skinnier to satisfy the ideal body type driven by people around him, even keeping this secret from his parents.
“I already knew that I was getting skinnier, but I was so scared of just going back that I felt like I had to keep cutting down,” Tan said. “Every time that I went back up a little in weight, I thought I was going to start crashing again.”
At his worst in eighth grade, he weighed 68 pounds.
The effects of his anorexia weren’t just physical. As his weight continued to drop, his friends began to make comments about how small he was. While everyone around him was experiencing growth spurts, Tan was subjected to constant comments about his small stature. Yet, as he was struggling with anorexia, Tan felt like he couldn’t open up about it to others.
“I didn’t really think people would understand, which is silly to look back at now because we live in an Asian community,” Tan said. “I bet a lot of people understand how it feels to be dejected for their body.”
Since many children fear retribution from opening up to their families, clinical psychologist Sari Shepphird believes certain speaking phrases can help communication using “I” phrases, such as “I feel ____.”
“It’s difficult to approach someone who has an eating disorder,” Dr. Shepphird said. “Most people are afraid that they’ll lose the friend or the loved one will be angry with them or defensive. But it’s worth the risk to express your love and concern.”
Around the same time, his father was hospitalized for a hemorrhage, and had to undergo surgery. While Tan was already struggling, the pain of watching his father be hospitalized felt unbearable, causing Tan to drop another 10 to 20 pounds.
Unaware of Tan’s anorexia, one of his friends invited him to the gym, telling Tan that if he stayed skinny he would get beat up in college. Unknown to the friend, this kickstarted Tan’s road to recovery. By his junior year of high school, Tan was working out often and eating more. He was slowly accepting his body and began recovering from anorexia.
“I don’t think I started thinking about [how] ‘This is my body’ until I started working out,” Tan said. “I used working out as a way of therapy and a way to cope with a lot of things. I had to hit the lowest point in order for me to start climbing back up. That’s the thing actually, I didn’t rely on God at that point [in middle school]. I think that’s why I got so much worse.”
It was a little known fact Tan had anorexia until he filmed and uploaded a video to Youtube called “My Testimony” on Jan. 29, 2019. In the video, Tan reflects on how comments chipped away at his confidence; it also aims to show how joining a ministry in college strengthened his relationship with God and helped him further appreciate his body. Ultimately, Tan wanted to help others open up about their own struggles and to understand his experience.
While he went into college with expectations of partying and having fun, he formed a connection with God during a retreat with Epic, a youth ministry at UCSB for Asian Americans.
“During the worship, hearing the lyrics and letting the whole process sink in, it hit me then that how much God has given me and how [He] has really affected my life,” Tan said. “No matter what I’m going through, the first thing I should do is listen and count on God no matter if I’m at a positive or negative place in my life. The first initiation I can take is to fiercely rely on him.”
Tan acknowledges that he still thinks about how others perceive him, but he won’t let them control how he deals with his body anymore. He filmed the video to show others to not be afraid to share their truth.
“Even though it might seem like you’re in a dark place, it’s always better to connect with others,” Tan said. “The minute you reach out, that’s when you can start growing again. I started thinking [that] God gave me this wonderful art piece to work with, and it’s my choice to do what I want.”
Inside the pressing recovery of Aditi Dixit’s nerve deteriorating syndrome, Gullain Barre
If she [sat] on the ground, she [couldn’t] get up. She had to relearn how to do everything.”
Mother Vanashree Dikshit vividly recounts her daughter’s year-long experience with Guillain Barré Syndrome. The autoimmune disorder, usually triggered by an acute bacterial or viral infection, is characterized by the immune system attacking healthy nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system, introducing symptoms of weakness in the feet and legs which eventually progress towards the upper body.
Although the disease affects only approximately 1 in 100,000 Americans according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Vanashree immediately recognized the red flags in her daughter’s symptoms. Having returned from a visit to India with her brother and father, sophomore Aditi Dixit and her brother caught the stomach flu in the summer before fifth grade, a common occurrence after a trip to India, Aditi admits. However, it was only 10-year-old Aditi who physically struggled to make her way from the airport back home.
“She just couldn’t walk. She just fell down. Then I realized she cannot take more than five steps,” Vanashree said. “I’m a pharmacist, so I knew that there was something wrong right [away.]”
The symptoms were clear. Aditi had acquired Guillain Barré Syndrome from her encounter with the flu. On the day after her return, Aditi made her way to the emergency room, followed by seven days in Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.
Day one: The hospital runs the same tests run in the E.R. the day prior — primarily breathing and neurological tests. After close inspection, the treatment of IVIG, a mixture of antibodies known as intravenous immune globulin, is to begin in the late afternoon. Aditi is placed in an isolation room.
Day two: Blood tests, saline solutions, antibiotics and conductivity test are taken. Thick needles are inserted in the muscles of the knee area, analyzing the transferring impulse from one area to another.
Day three: The last dose of IVIG is given. Aditi slowly starts walking for the first time since treatment began.
Day four: More neurological tests — Can you speak? Can you move your fingers? Can you smile?
Day five: Without the usual anesthesia given to children (due to a scheduling absence of the anesthetist), a CT scan of the brain is taken. Vanashree has to hold Aditi still for the 20-minute scan.
Day six: Aditi is moved to a different room, then back into the isolation room. Results display that the progression of the syndrome has come to a halt. A brain fluid culture test is taken via spinal tap, a painful procedure in which a needle punctures the spine. Again, Aditi is not anesthetized.
Day seven: With a negative result in the brain fluid culture for infection, Aditi is permitted to return home and proceed with physical therapy.
While the procedures were a nerve-wracking series of tests and waiting and tests and waiting to Aditi’s parents, to Aditi, the most prominent memories of her week in isolation were exactly that — isolating. Due to her isolation, Aditi’s friends weren’t able to visit her at the hospital and her time among other young patients were sparse.
“It was really, really boring because there’s not much you can do except sit there,” Aditi said. “[The recovery was] slow according to me, but apparently in comparison others, it was really quick.”
Although there is no cure for Guillain Barré Syndrome, recovery is a matter of retraining muscle movements. Aditi had to relearn how to walk, sit down, get up after sitting down and other conventional movements, primarily involving her legs. Aditi remains humble when recounting her speedy recovery, however her attentiveness to the rehabilitation process was mostly to thank. The determination was evoked for funny reason, too, as her mother describes.
“She did the physical therapy very seriously. The only reason she did it because she wanted to go for that science camp in fifth grade,” Vanashree said. “I still remember [...] in the hospital, [she] said, ‘Mama, I want to go to science camp.’”
One month later, Aditi was fully able to regain her ability to walk, allowing her to attend science camp after another two months alongside her classmates at Faria Elementary School.
Recovery remained a matter of physical therapy assistance and trial and error experiences, but retraining some functions was admittedly forgotten.
The following summer, Aditi’s recovery allowed her to participate in the Silicon Valley Triathlon. The event took place for young children at De Anza College. Being one of the oldest participants and having had an athletic childhood, Aditi’s apparent advantage was short-lived. With the blow of the starting whistle, initiating the swimming section of the event, a jump into the water turned into a long nine-lap doggy paddle episode.
Aditi’s body had not been re-trained to swim.
“She just jumped in the pool and she found out she couldn't swim,” father Ashutosh Dikshit said. “She lost the muscle memory.”
By the time she was done paddling herself through the second lap, people had begun the next third of the race, Vanashree recalls.
Second, to last in the first third of the event, Aditi was able to regain momentum in the biking and running portions. Though her recovery was complete, these little hindrances cropped up.
Finally, Guillain-Barré Syndrome remained a thing of the past for Aditi as she continues to excel in the active play of her youth. A member of MVHS’ track and field team, Aditi is able to indulge in running, a striking juxtaposition of the baby steps taken just five years back.
“It makes you tough. And [it teaches you] how to face things daily — take everything [one] at a time,” Vanashree said. “And we realized that she is very tough.”
How her depression and anxiety led to fibromyalgia
Stomach flu, check. Seasonal flu, check. Numbness travelling up the body, check.
“Oh my gosh, I’m going to die.”
When junior Yoanna Lee experienced these aforementioned symptoms last December, she was certain she was sick. After observing her for a while, her brother Solomon Lee, who is a reconstruction plastic surgeon, became worried when he realized she could have Guillain-Barré, a nuerological condition where the immune system attacks the nerves, which leads to tingling sensations and eventually paralysis.
After her brother’s unofficial diagnosis, Lee was admitted to the hospital, because of her fainting spells. She underwent a full body MRI scan and several examinations to determine a diagnosis.
The doctors were confused, as Lee’s body appeared to be physically fine, yet her symptoms were very pronounced. Through observation of her symptoms and the process of elimination, the doctors diagnosed her with fibromyalgia last December.
According to Mayo Clinic, fibromyalgia is an incurable neurological disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain and is accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. It’s normally triggered by depression, anxiety or mental trauma.
Lee was diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety when she was in sixth grade and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) when she was in 10th grade. Lee believes that the build-up of her depression and anxiety combined with the pressure from school during first semester of junior year flipped a switch. She began feeling pain in her hips, calves and back. Sometimes, she couldn’t feel her legs.
“It was all different types of pains and all different levels of them and intensities, so it’s hard to describe,” Lee said. “It’s kind of like a bomb went off in my body. I didn’t even know what was going on or when it’s going to happen and how intense it’s going to be.”
Lee missed more than six weeks of school during second semester. One particular teacher, David Hartford, was understanding of her physical condition.
“She’s been a great advocate for herself,” Hartford said. “I think she doesn’t want to let that hold her back from being successful in the classroom, and she’s very dedicated academically, so she definitely kind of grapples with this back and forth.”
On a scale of one to ten, Lee’s pain would fluctuate from four to 10, with “one” being similar to a paper cut and “10” being pain excruciating enough to require a trip to the hospital. The pain continued to be so bad that she grew accustomed to it, although she occasionally tossed and turned at night and lost her appetite from being bedridden. In order to keep her mind off the pain, Lee downloaded video games and meditation apps on her phone and watched Korean dramas.
She could barely walk or get out of bed and could not spend time with her friends. Not being able to perform these day-to-day activities, caused Lee to feel useless and further exacerbated her anxiety and depression.
However, as time passed, Lee says she began to realize that it was all in her head. It wasn’t like the pain was being physically inflicted on her body since her brain was sending pain signals to her body.. Painkillers didn’t help, so Lee learned to deal with her pain spells, whether they lasted a few days or only a couple of minutes.
Lee says that her family helped her through this difficult time. However, this experience was especially hard on her mom because her mom couldn’t fully comprehend the condition and mental illness in general. But Lee understood that her mom came from a different background and believed that dealing with a mental illness was as simple as just “getting over it.”
“It was really frustrating, but also knowing that she’s coming from the best intentions also made me feel useless because I know that it is my responsibility to sit up and deal with it and function, but sometimes I feel like I can’t do that,” Lee said. “So there’s a huge part of me blaming myself for my inability to do anything, as well as [being] really angry at my mom [because] she just doesn’t understand, [even] when she’s trying to do the best she can.”
Eventually, her siblings helped her mom understand the severity of mental illnesses and how they affect physical sensations. Her mom realized that it wasn’t as simple as a mentality change, so she decided to get Lee a dog.
Ironically, her mother’s initial advice in learning how to deal with fibromyalgia was essentially the idea of her treatment: pain therapy. Lee had visited a therapist and the process was similar to physical therapy, but instead of training your muscles or bones, the idea was to train the mind to ignore the pain.
After doing planks and pushups in pain therapy, Lee’s fibromyalgia became dormant within three months. Lee believes it was her faith that cured her, as she began to feel much better after a church retreat during winter break. Her friend, junior Angela Chu, was also at this retreat with her. She describes how at one point during the retreat, Lee grabbed her in the middle of a sermon and started bawling.
“I’m like what happened now, what went wrong, because everything in her life was going wrong,” Chu said. “I was like how much worse can this get for you and then it was interesting [because] turns out she was crying out of joy because it was like as she was praying [and] surrendering to God, she was no longer in pain.”
Since fibromyalgia is incurable, there’s always a chance Lee could develop it again, but the experience taught her and her family how important it is to take care of mental health as it could impact physical health.
“That’s kind of why [I got] a dog— we’re taking all these measures to take care of my mental health,” Lee said. “We’ve experienced something where it turned pretty severe and we understand the severity of something that seems so abstract, and that it is actually really real.”