Sergio Soto choked back a tear as the marriage officiant said, “In sickness and in health, till death do you part.”
Soto has battled a pre-cancerous blood condition called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) with his high school sweetheart Isabella Cristobal by his side for years. Now, the couple has decided they want to be together forever.
Soto was diagnosed with MDS when he was just 15-years-old. The couple began dating soon after.
“I’ve never known him pre-cancer,” said Cristobal. Soto’s condition compromised his immune system, so the partners were never able to participate in some of the typical activities of high school romance. “A lot of my friends—they’d go to events like fairs and amusement parks. We haven’t even done that together now,” said Cristobal. “It was kind of like being long-distance, but he lived ten minutes away.”
Over the years they’ve been together, Cristobal has taken on more and more responsibilities as Soto’s caretaker, even becoming his advance care directive.
At 20, Soto has learned that he may only have a few weeks to live. His doctors determined that his MDS had developed into an aggressive and untreatable form of leukemia. When the couple heard the news, it only took them one week to plan their wedding. The community banded together to support them. A restaurant donated their catering service, and a bridal boutique donated the wedding dress.
Cristobal pointed out that the wedding meant something different to them than a typical wedding. “The wedding…was really just a nice ceremony for us to have that closure, that we were able to do this, and that if he goes, he goes knowing that he has someone.”
Soto and Cristobal hope their love story will inspire people living with cancer to appreciate and celebrate the precious time they have with loved ones. “Always live for today, do what you want to do, and hold onto hope,” said Cristobal. “There are miracles out there.”
What is a blood cancer? What causes a blood cancer? How is it detected?
Leukemia is a blood cancer that forms in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is a spongy tissue inside the bone that produces blood cells. The type of leukemia a patient has depends on the kind of blood cells the cancer interferes with. The National Cancer Institute notes that leukemia typically occurs in adults over 55-years-old, but it is also the most prevalent cancer in children under 15-years-old.
In September 2016, when Sergio was 15-years-old, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). According to the Mayo Clinic, MDS is a group of conditions in which blood cells do not mature correctly. Healthy bone marrow produces immature blood cells which develop over time. In people with MDS, something disrupts this system, and the blood cells never mature–they die in the bone marrow or soon after moving into the blood stream. Over time, immature and inoperative blood cells come to outnumber the healthy blood cells. This can lead to a range of issues. Too few functioning red blood cells can cause tiredness–a condition called anemia. A scarcity of healthy white blood cells (which are tasked with protecting the body from infection and disease) can lead to leukopenia. Too few platelets will keep blood from clotting, leading to excessive bleeding–a condition called thrombocytopenia. In addition to these complications, MDS patients are at a higher risk of developing cancer in their bone marrow and blood cells.
Soto’s condition recurred four times, and he has undergone three bone marrow transplants with family members’ stem cells. One of the transplants held the MDS off effectively for three years, but Soto and Cristobal were crushed in the fall of 2019 when they learned it had come back.
“It was really devastating to hear that because it was right when we were supposed to start college,” said Cristobal. It wasn’t until later that year, though, that Soto’s doctors identified immature white blood cells in his blood stream.
“(The doctors) said ‘we don’t know what it is,’ but me seeing that and being educated about this, I knew that the MDS had turned into leukemia,” said Cristobal. Soon after the cells were discovered, Soto was diagnosed with secondary acute myeloid leukemia (sAML). sAML is a particularly dangerous and hard-to-treat form of AML. That day, Cristobal went to her job at Starbucks and requested a leave of absence. She hasn’t been back since.
Dr. Mikkel Sekeres breaks down the next steps following an AML diagnosis.
A devastating situation got worse when an MRI revealed masses in Soto’s head and neck area. That is when Soto’s doctors told him that they had run out of treatment options–even harsh chemotherapy would be more likely to shorten his life than to extend it.
“It was hard to hear the news, especially because Sergio is full of hope, and he never believed it would come to that point,” said Cristobal.
Cristobal was forthright about the weight of the situation: “It is scary to think about. Especially filling out will papers and making decisions like whether or not he would want to be on life support.”
But even now, a week after stopping his chemotherapy treatment and a day after their wedding, Soto and Cristobal are focused on finding moments of love to celebrate.
“Now, we’re not really looking for a cure—we just want to see how long we can have together,” said Cristobal. “We take it day by day—like today, he’s perfectly fine, and we don’t know what the next day could be.”
The couple might not know what tomorrow will look like, but they have a few ideas. Soto and Cristobal are taking advantage of this moment to enjoy the adventures that they always wanted to. Visits to the zoo, the beach, and the amusement park top the list.
To stay updated with the couple’s journey, follow them on Instagram at @lovethrucancer, and if you would like to support them financially, you can do so through their GoFundMe page.
Dr. Siddhartha Ganguly of the University of Kansas stresses how important mindset and lifestyle are for individuals diagnosed with leukemia. “Although diet, exercise, and a positive attitude can never replace the interventional cancer treatment that you and your oncologist decide on, these factors can absolutely help patients tolerate these treatments,” he says.
In addition to the psychological benefits of a positive attitude, studies suggest that an optimistic attitude can directly support the immune system.
“Research has actually proven that depression can result in a decreased immune system and increased chance of infection,” Dr. Ganguly says. People who approach treatment with an upbeat outlook and healthy habits will have “a better chance of coming out of the treatment with less complications, and probably will be able to tolerate it better,” he said.