A Voice for Change

Nohemi Gomez was at a labor march in the Mission District of San Francisco when she began to feel faint, sweating profusely. She had been experiencing weeks of fatigue, but passed it off as related to her busy college schedule. However, this time the fatigue was so intense that it left her immobilized. She smudged sage over her body and silently prayed, willing her body to refuel. She continued to march.

Nohemi was used to pushing forward, even in the midst of pain and challenge. The daughter of two parents who immigrated from Mexico, Nohemi’s childhood was characterized by integrating the cultural influences of her Mexican heritage while growing up in Southern California. Nohemi matured quickly as her father had a stroke in 2002 followed by two brain surgeries. These medical experiences changed her father and shifted the dynamics in her family. Nohemi, independent and responsible, took on many caregiving duties for her father while also pursuing her own goals with vigor.

She enrolled in University of San Francisco without even being aware of San Francisco was. Nohemi dove in headfirst, majoring in biology in hopes of becoming a doctor one day because she didn’t want girls like her “to one day feel like their dad went into the hospital one way and came out another person.” That is how Nohemi operates: using her own life experiences to compel positive change for others. Nohemi excelled in college, ultimately changing her major to Latino/a and Africana studies.

Towards the tail end of her college career, Nohemi began experiencing odd symptoms: night sweats, high fevers, and weight and hair loss. In one instance, Nohemi fell downstairs while taking out the trash; a truly disconcerting experience. Still, it wasn’t until her mother came to visit that Nohemi got a dose of perspective. Seeing Nohemi’s jaundiced face and high fever, her mother said “You are not ok. Let’s go to the hospital.” True to form, Nohemi tried to stand her ground, saying that her symptoms were just due to a busy schedule. Further, going to hospitals signaled something incredibly grave to Nohemi; images of her father’s medical experience coming to mind. Nevertheless, Nohemi’s mother persisted, she was admitted to the hospital, and doctors ordered a battery of tests.

It became immediately apparent that her white blood cell count was critically low, prompting the doctors to suspect HIV or meningitis. Nohemi stayed in the hospital, in complete stupor, for two days. Finally, a hemotologist came in her room and said that she was either experiencing a viral infection or leukemia. He proceeded to ask if she knew anything about leukemia, to which she replied, “I watched ‘A Walk to Remember’- and she died.”

Upon receiving this news, Nohemi remembers “I wasn’t crying- there was no emotion- it was just an exchange.” Nohemi was transferred to UCSF two days later and received a bone marrow biopsy. The results yielded the news that it was indeed leukemia. Nohemi asked if she could be transferred to a hospital closer to home to receive treatment, but the doctor advised that she not risk a transfer as her survival would be tenuous without treatment in the transfer process. The doctor left the room.

Nohemi occupied a large hospital room, all to herself, with the most beautiful view of San Francisco. In that moment, Nohemi cried.

Following four vigorous rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, a bone marrow transplant that left her hospitalized for almost two months, and Graft Versus Host Disease, Nohemi is now 5 years into her recovery.  An active member of CSC’s young adult group, Nohemi imparts wisdom from her time post-cancer and offers genuine support and care for others in the room. Other group members are awed by her eloquence and passion for helping those in need. Nohemi also regularly attends CSC’s yoga classes, utilizing the practice to fuel her body and mind.

Though incredibly thankful for her medical care, Nohemi voices disparities in the health care system as a young woman of color. From lack of representation in medical research to higher incidence rates of cancer in certain communities, Nohemi feels that many under-resourced populations do not have access to quality medical care. Further, Nohemi calls for more attunement and compassion when treating young adults with cancer. In one instance, mere moments after receiving her diagnosis, a fertility specialist came into Nohemi’s hospital room, speaking of an egg retrieval process that would take months to complete. Meanwhile, Nohemi needed to start treatment immediately or she would face her death. As such, pursuing fertility treatments was not even an option for her. Having just received an acute and life threatening diagnosis, Nohemi did not have the headspace to contemplate fertility treatments and grieve the fact that she ultimately would not be able to do them. Though she recognizes that the specialist had the best of intentions and was simply performing her job, Nohemi believes that these types of situations are rampant and signal a need for more training in compassionate and culturally-informed medical care.

In all, Nohemi advocates for more representation of people of color in medical journals and pamphlets, more education, and more dialog with marginalized communities. She believes that change will only begin to occur when we all take responsibility, and when we all can participate in this dialog. If you want to be a part of the dialog and compel positive change in cancer care, visit Cancer Support Community’s Policy and Advocacy page. The Cancer Policy Institute (CPI) connects advocates and policy experts to “ensure that the voices of cancer patients and their loved ones play a central role in federal and state legislative, regulatory, and executive policy making.”

Humble and grounded, Nohemi has simple goals for her future: “I see myself growing into the person I want to be: knowing my worth in relationships, my career, my goals. I’m a very curious human; my happiness exists inside of me and does not need to be validated by having a house, career, or money. I want to make my family and ancestors proud, listening to myself every step of the way.”