It began with a cough, benign enough to blame it on a cold. But after three months, the cough persisted, causing unsuspecting Rogelio De La Peña, 13, to have an x-ray taken.
After further scans and a biopsy, doctors confirmed what seemed so impossible to a then 13 year old De La Peña. He had been diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
On average, an estimated 8,260 new cases of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma are diagnosed every year.
And just like that, De La Peña was one of them. But through an optimistic outlook, he’s grabbing at every chance he can get to live the full UNT college experience.
The first battle
It was March 2013, shortly before summer break of his freshman year at Eastlake High School in El Paso. De La Peña had been planning to go to Germany with his friend.
Instead, for the next several months, he would be traveling between home and the El Paso Children’s Hospital.
“It was a definite shock,” De La Peña said. “When they first told me that I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s they also told me that it could be something else as well. So I was hoping it was that other thing and not cancer, but then they did a biopsy and came out with the conclusion that I did [have cancer].”
Just two days later, an IV catheter was surgically inserted into his upper chest. Doctors ordered four rounds of chemotherapy and two rounds of radiation. But radiation, a type of direct spot therapy, was replaced with a fifth round of chemo.
Spot therapy would be inefficient, since the cancer had spread everywhere in his body.
“It was the one of the most harrowing experiences of my life,” De La Peña said. “Just imagine poison being pumped into your body at least for a week for four months.”
De La Peña didn’t have all the answers, but did know that he wanted have a positive outlook on it. A history of cancer was already fresh on his family’s memories.
“My mom’s dad died of cancer at least two years before I got cancer so it was hitting her pretty hard,” De La Peña said. “I didn’t want her to see me the same way she did her dad. I wanted to be stronger for the sake of her.”
More than that, optimism was the most effective way for De La Peña to cope with the grim situation. If he was down, he knew everyone else would be too.
“As soon as I started being pessimistic, it would just seem not fair and I didn’t want to think that way, not just for the sake of me, but for the sake of my family,” De La Peña said. “Plus I didn’t want myself to actually realize the gravity of all of this. So I just always put a smile on my face.”
The treatment was expected to last six months with another six months for recovery. Luckily, the chemo was working well with his body. However, that didn’t make the process any less painful.
“For myself, I had never felt so powerless,” Rogelio’s father, Raul De La Peña said. “If it was a pep talk or a reprimand or a little cash, I could always fix [the problem]. But this time around, my hands were tied.”
As the months dragged on, De La Peña pushed through with an open mind.
“They shoot you with a ton of information and he was up for it, he wanted that fight,” Raul said. “He had visitors and all kinds of religions come in and pray for him. He was open to that.”
Every time an infusion came up, Raul said De La Peña wanted to know all the side effects to avoid being surprised.
At one point, he couldn’t taste food, but he assured everyone they were still on track.
“He said, ‘This is normal, according to the paper this is what should happen so we’re okay,’” Raul said.
After chemotherapy and recovery, De La Peña and his family hoped for the best.
He never fully went into remission, however. The chance that the cancer would come back was still high.
And it did.
By the time he sat down at the doctor’s office, De La Peña already knew the cancer had returned. Except this time, it would be tougher. He would have to undergo two rounds of extreme, high-dose chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant at a hospital in San Antonio.
It was De La Peña’s sophomore year of high school. Sitting there, the only thing he could think about was the amount of schoolwork he would miss.
“I was thinking ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do about school?’ I hadn’t ever done this before,” De La Peña said. “I just didn’t want to believe it. But I had to.”
As shocking as the results were, the De La Peña family said the only thing they could do was to find a solution.
“The only thing I could do was put my feelings aside and say, “Okay, what do you need from us, doctor?’” Raul said. “How are we going to fight this?’”
For a month, De La Peña was in the hospital. The high-dose chemo was administered to kill all the cells in his body, including any bone marrow that remained.
The symptoms that resulted showed him that this would be a different, harder fight than before.
“Before the first time, I had never thrown up during chemotherapy, but this time around it was really bad,” De La Peña said. “I had thrown up around three times a day and lost at least 20 pounds within a week.”
He also lost hair, a process that he never got used to. Clumps of it would fall off onto his pillow and in the shower.
“Just think about it, pulling on your hair and it just comes off,” De La Peña said. “You don’t even feel like you pulled out hair.”
After receiving his transplant, De La Peña was more than ready to leave. He was the first patient that left early after his bone marrow transplant and with the least amount of medication. He was also one of the first to leave without a wheelchair.
The nurses told him he was basically running.
The full college experience
From his hometown of El Paso to Denton, it is a 10 hour drive.
After deciding to enroll at UNT as a political science major, De La Peña’s mother bombarded him with questions.
“What if you need to go to doctor’s appointments?” She would ask. “Who’s going to take you to the hospital?”
De La Peña was finally in remission, with slim to no chance of the cancer coming back.
At this point, he told her he didn’t care. He had spent too much time in the hospital anyway.
“Now I’m looking to experience,” De La Peña said “ I really want to be involved in things and I don’t want to be left out short again, because [when I was diagnosed] I was a freshman in high school and I had so much to live for.”
Many of the friends De La Peña made along the cancer fight, who also survived, try to make up for lost time. Some of them go wild, his father said.
“But Rogelio’s a little different,” Raul said. “He always had a lot of friends and family supporting him. He knows not very many people get a second chance.”
As the coordinator of records at Clark Hall Association (CHA), a member of the Resident Hall Association and a brief dabbler in the Swim Club, De La Peña is already echoing this sentiment.
“He’s basically the glue of CHA right now, which I love and appreciate him for always wanting to be a part of it,” said Shayska Gonzalez, Assistant Hall Director at Clark Hall. “I ask him for any type of [favor] and he’s on it. It’s difficult to find people who want to get out there and do things but he never has an issue with that.”
In the future, De La Peña hopes to become a lawyer fighting for the disabled and their rights.
Although he graduated high school on time, De La Peña said he was also denied many opportunities like dual credit and AP classes due to being classified as a disabled student.
“That’s discrimination toward disabled students and I’d like to fight that system and hopefully give back education to those who want it,” De La Peña said.
De La Peña and his family are now focusing on the present and future, not dwelling on the past.
“I still want to see good grades and don’t want to see him make too much noise,” Raul said said. “But right now, it’s whatever he wants to do. Do it and do it right. Put this behind and be happy.”
Featured Image: UNT political science freshman, Rogelio De La Pena stands outside the University Union. Sasha Calamaco