STAFF WRITER JARED FIELDS
Every day Ricardo “Ricky” Heredia wakes up is an extra day he’s thankful to have.
In June, the Marble Falls resident celebrated his fifth year as a cancer survivor at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago along with more than 100 others.
The event rolled out the red carpet for survivors, caretakers, and family members.
“It really signified to me that, ‘We’re in your corner, we want to help, and we’re here for you no matter what,’” Heredia said of the celebration.
Heredia was diagnosed in 2014 with Stage IV aggressive diffuse large B cell lymphoma, according to Dr. Syed A. Abutalib, associate medical director of the Stem Cell Transplant and Cell Therapy Program at the Chicago facility.
On a Thursday in September of that year, Heredia’s back pain steadily increased to the point that he had to tell his coworkers he was going home.
His wife, Martha, said he never missed a day of work except for the birth of a child.
This pain was different and unlike anything he’d experienced in his life.
Living in Crane at the time, the couple went to an emergency room in Odessa that Friday. On Saturday, he felt even weaker, and on Sunday, his feet gave out from underneath him. The couple decided to go to a hospital in Lubbock, where, on Monday, an MRI showed several masses that were compressing his spinal cord.
Waiting nine days for a trauma neurosurgeon to get to Heredia on the rotation, the official diagnosis hit the family hard.
He had Stage IV aggressive diffuse large B cell lymphoma with involvement of the lung lining, the lower end of his spine, and the bundle of nerves in the lower end of his spine.
The doctor in Lubbock told the Heredias that Ricky had six months to live and treatment needed to begin immediately.
“I’m not going to lie, we all cried. I cried hearing that. My first concern was what about my family, and that aspect of it,” he recalled about that moment.
The Heredias made the decision to return home to Crane. They had just begun thinking about retirement for Ricky from his West Texas oil job and moving to Marble Falls.
At home, the Heredias remembered an advertisement they had seen for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America and looked into getting a second opinion from the hospital.
Despite Ricky’s weakness and difficulty moving, the Heredias made the Chicago trip that November. The CTCA staff prescribed chemo treatments for Ricky, but their philosophy is what convinced him to stay with the Chicago hospital.
“All we could do is administer the treatment. God is the healer,” he recalled being told. “With that being said, in my heart, that was something that I felt like the Lord was saying would be the place for me.”
A religious couple, Ricky and Martha said they never questioned their faith during the diagnosis and treatment.
“Our prayer was: ‘Give us strength for the day, your healing mercy for today, and your help for today,’” Ricky said.
At a return appointment in December, three months after back pain led to a hospital visit and diagnosis, his doctor in Chicago noticed something on Ricky’s latest CT scan that needed confirmation.
There were no visible masses. The lymphoma was gone.
It’s something Abutalib said was not like other patients he’s treated at CTCA.
“The disease was highly aggressive; it involved the pleura (lung lining) spine and caudal equina (bundle of nerves below the end of the spinal cord),” Abutalib wrote. “He presented with fluid around the lung and cauda equina syndrome, a medical emergency. Additionally, the disease was an aggressive subtype of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) i.e. activated B cell (ABC).”
Ricky was prescribed four more chemo treatments to ensure the disease didn’t return.
Back home, he went to physical therapy to build up his strength so he could walk again. He changed his diet and, with Martha, looked into a complete holistic care approach. Ricky, who’s always played guitar, said it became a therapy.
Whether at home, in the hospital in Lubbock, or in Chicago, Ricky played for himself, nearby patients, and for anyone in the CTCA atrium.
“I believe one of the healing components in his life was the music part,” Martha said.
After celebrating five years as a cancer survivor, Ricky remains thankful for his life, his children, and grandchildren. He and Martha will celebrate 44 years of marriage on July 31. Ricky takes a large amount of supplements each day but no other medication. He might eat a cheeseburger every now and then, but his diet and lifestyle have changed dramatically since his diagnosis.
As a cancer survivor, the disease isn’t behind them. A fever, headache, or any change in Ricky’s body puts Martha on alert.
“Even though we’re living each day with more peace and ease, it’s not (gone),” Martha said of her worry for Ricky’s health.
Cancer, as the Heredias see it, can claim anyone. But early on, the couple decided they would continue to fight the disease with every breath.
“The most important thing through the whole process is: Don’t give up. Fight as hard as you can,” Martha said.
Martha armed herself and Ricky with as many weapons as possible in their battle.
“The more weapons, the more we’re able to help defeat this disease that’s come against his body,” she said. “If Ricky wouldn’t have made it, we could say we did as much as we could.”
But, Ricky says, he has Martha, his children, his grandchildren, and a cancer-free life in Marble Falls.
So with each day, Ricky and Martha take the win and hope their story shows that cancer is a disease that can be beaten.
“I never questioned God why. I never blamed God. We are going to trust God in this because it’s a win-win,” Ricky said. “I know the Lord, so if this takes me, I’ll be with him. If not, I will serve in the best way I can here.”