April 26th, 2012
08:13 AM ET

Human Factor: Doctor's post-cancer life lesson

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week transplant surgeon Dr. Carlos Zayas describes his experience as a patient when he underwent a bone marrow transplant

When I was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in 2009, I was told I had a 10% chance (or less) of survival with a 90% chance of relapse. Needless to say, it was overwhelming.

After 24 rounds of chemo, 18 different drugs, a failed transplant of my own bone marrow and an unsuccessful international search for a perfect bone marrow match, I knew my prognosis didn’t look good - but I decided that my diagnosis didn’t mean I was going to die.

You see, between the advancements in medicine and the power of faith, I knew there was hope and that I had an opportunity to grow and do more things. So even though I was sick, I came in to work in the mornings and saw my patients. Then, I would get my chemo and come back to see more patients.

Each day, I lived to make a difference for whatever time I had left to live.

I actually intensified some of my activities during this time and often found peace in the evenings at home when my family prayed and gathered around the table for a meal.

To this day, I believe the love of your family and friends is a strong force to keep you going, especially when you combine that with a strong religious or faith-based belief. All those things helped me endure my diagnosis and the harsh treatments that followed.

When I made a plea to my doctors to use my brother Hector’s bone marrow (an 8-out-of-10 match) for a second transplant, I knew I was taking a huge risk – a match like that can kill you faster than the disease itself – but I wasn’t done fighting and I certainly hadn’t given up on a second chance at life.

A lot of little miracles have come from this very long and difficult experience, but I’m thankful and happy to be alive.

It is by the grace of God that I am able to stay active and support people in need. In the past, my Piedmont Hospital colleague Dr. John Whelchel and I traveled to El Salvador with Children’s Cross Connection to lead 33 transplants in that country. We hope to do this again soon now that I’m healthy again.

Read more about Dr. Zayas' battle with lymphoma

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the life you lived was perfect.

What does matter is how much you love others, and the easiest way to show this love is to give back what you have received for free.

What is permanent in life is the footprint you leave behind in the lives of others.

That’s why I’ve made it my calling to help minorities learn about transplantation and the benefits of being a donor.

For information on joining the national bone marrow registry, visit marrow.org

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Filed under: Cancer • Human Factor

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Merced Cancer Treatment

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    April 26, 2012 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Kathy

    May God continue to bless you and your family. May you continue your work in helping others.

    April 26, 2012 at 10:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. JACK

    I too had a great cancer scare and with prayer and faith it seems to be healing each day. God bless this great Doctor for his work.

    April 26, 2012 at 12:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jama


    April 26, 2012 at 13:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. FSM

    Praying doesn't make cancer go away. It won't save you, and it won't heal you. If God was going to do anything, he would stop you from getting cancer to begin with. What makes you think you can pray and God's going to fix you when he doesn't fix all the little children that suffer through this disease? What makes you think he'll save you and not the person in the next bed over? Selfish, primitive people...

    April 26, 2012 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TRSEST

      From a human perspective you are right F SM. Why not just stop everyone from getting sick in the first place. But, not the way it works in real life. Physical suffering is a result being human. Decay is all around us. Why He chooses to heal some and not others – I have no idea. In the end, though, we will spend all eternity with Him anyway so this little time does not really matter much.
      Fine call me primitive. I have hope in forever.

      April 26, 2012 at 15:20 | Report abuse |
    • gdfgdzfgzf

      I pray that you truly find Jesus before you time on this earth is over. I find people who dont beleive in God are those who think they know everything. Dont be ignorant. This all didnt come about from some explosion.

      April 26, 2012 at 15:36 | Report abuse |
    • chris

      couldnt agree more!!! maybe if i pray to the man who sits in the clouds, all of the cancer in the world will disappear!! I think that what the doctor did is a great and noble thing however giving praise to god for saving him is just plain stupid. Im pretty sure that every person who has cancer is praying to some deity to save them but only some of them will be saved. why is that?? are they not praying enough?? are they not a good enough of a person?? what about all the children who are innocent?? or maybe they are praying to the wrong deity?? or maybe god wants them to die??? I believe if you you are a kind, honest and morally good person, and you are positive about your situation, it cant hurt. staying optimistic and positive can only do good things for you and others around you. God has nothing to do with it!! or Allah, or yahweh or whoever you are praying to. Props to the doctor though for helping other people. thats what it is all about.

      April 26, 2012 at 18:08 | Report abuse |
    • Shelley

      Agree 100%. If praying to some god made cancer, or any other illness, go away then why bother with the medical treatment. Just pray. Sure, that'll solve it. Don't bother with the chemotherapy, the radiation, the surgery or whatever other modern medical treatment might help you. And notice I said might. Medicine isn't perfect. Every illness get doesn't cured. Life expectancy in the US now is about 80 years, give or take. What was it 50 years ago or 100 years ago? A lot less. That is not because some god has decided that we should live longer. It is because of science. Medical science. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever been cured or solved by prayer. People, you are talking to yourselves.

      April 26, 2012 at 21:19 | Report abuse |
    • SunnyColorado

      FSM I'm all in agreement with you too. But if that's what people need to get thru difficult times, I respect that. What I HATE is when they force their beliefs on everyone else. It's that old motto "I have nothing against God, it's his fan club I can't stand".

      April 27, 2012 at 11:46 | Report abuse |
  6. Jillian

    They didn't say they didn't believe in God. And I don't thing they're ignorant at all. I've often had the same question though, my sister died from cancer and we prayed everyday for her recovery. So when people say that through prayer and faith, you can be healed and God will answer your prayer, it just makes me wonder where that leaves the people that don't make it through. Were we not good enough Christians? And also like FSM said, what about the children suffering everyday with cancer. So, I guess my point is that when people say they were healed through faith and prayer, what does that mean for the rest of us?

    April 26, 2012 at 15:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      Thank you. I wanted to read an article about MEDICINE. Not sure what this thing was.

      April 27, 2012 at 11:28 | Report abuse |
    • jill

      Jillian, we did the same for my father. And he died. But guess what. He is in heaven so he WAS healed. He is now living life in the utlimate place. Heaven is a good place so if we go there its Gods timing not ours.

      April 27, 2012 at 16:09 | Report abuse |
    • John

      So Jill, not Jillian, did you pray for him to die so he would be healed in heaven? And if heaven is the place to be, why did you pray for him to stay here? And if it is God's time that determines when we die, why did you try to stick your nose in God's business?

      April 27, 2012 at 18:10 | Report abuse |
  7. chris

    to gdfgdzfgzf: I find people who believe in God think THEY know everything. The big bang obviously is a farce!! science and truth are stupid!! it makes a lot more sense that a man in the clouds watches over us and actually cares what goes on down here. You probably don't believe in evolution either. Look it up you fruitcake!!!

    April 26, 2012 at 18:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SunnyColorado

      Chirs, it's not even just the man watching over us... what about other galaxies, other worlds? Billions of galaxies out there with the potential for millions or trillions of other planets like ours with life sources. Is the same God watching out for them? Do all our Gods watch over them too? Yes, the religious know it all.

      April 27, 2012 at 11:50 | Report abuse |


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    April 26, 2012 at 18:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fernt

      Phew! Lucky we all know you're kidding.

      April 26, 2012 at 21:08 | Report abuse |
    • SunnyColorado

      Did you forget to take your medication today or are you just a naturally nasty hateful person?

      April 27, 2012 at 11:51 | Report abuse |
  9. Susan

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful story! Thank you so much, Dr. Zayas and CNN, for sharing this. Dr. Zayas, your choices are inspiring!

    April 26, 2012 at 22:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. hi

    a doctor who believes in mythical creatures:
    ignorance rears its head in unlikely places.

    April 27, 2012 at 10:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. doc

    Agree with "hi" I am also a physician, and woud suggest anyone wanting to hear an articulate discussion of "fuzzy math" ,"voodoo medicine" and cases of impossible healing" – read Carl Sagen. He makes some excellent points.

    Seem us humans are great at discounting objective data, and giving credit to all sorts of things for our troubles and cures. As a physician and scientist I do find such discussions interesting; but really!

    Personally, I would not put my "faith" in a doctor who places so much confidence in the mystical.... I am sure she has plenty of dedicated followers. Sometimes ignorance is bliss

    April 27, 2012 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • alex


      Remember, science can also fail us and when people have no other path I can understand Dr. Zaya's philosophy. If this is your stance on treating the sick, I would much rather have Dr. Zayas as my treating physician than you, and I am a scientist as well!


      April 27, 2012 at 12:15 | Report abuse |
  12. D

    To me a "scare" is a near-miss. For example, the tests were a false positive. If you have cancer, it is not a cancer scare-it's cancer.

    April 27, 2012 at 11:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. c s

    I am glad that the doctor is doing well; hopefully he will live a long life.

    The doctor has the benefit of world class medical care and not a word about the cost and who ended up paying for it. My guess is that the doctor not only received world class medical care; he also has world class medical insurance that is not available to many. I know of woman who had breast cancer who died from the disease after a medical bill in excess of $500,000. Her husband had two medical insurance policies and yet he had a co-pay of over $100,000 for her treatment. So I would suggest that the good doctor volunteer some of his services here in the US along with El Salvador. Then maybe more Americans will have the same chance at life as he does.

    April 27, 2012 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Fiona

    Lost me with "the power of faith" and "the grace of God." To assume that "God" bothered to spare your life is pure hubris. I have lost so many family members to cancer - including my father, at a very young age - and have known so many others who have been taken, and I assure you that many of those who died were exceptional people deserving of more time. On the other hand, I know one truly rotten, deceitful person who is currently in remisssion. Did your "God" make those choices?

    April 27, 2012 at 22:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. annie

    We are all born and we all will die of something. Some will go sooner than others. Whether you believe in God or not, try to live a good life and do good deeds. It won't make you live any longer, but those you leave behind will speak of you kindly and remember you, which is all any of us can ask. Dying is another part of life. If we do it with grace then we are leaving valuable lessons for those left behind.

    April 27, 2012 at 23:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. DArlene

    here my 2 cents glad you had health insurance. I go to the county health 2 times a years and the witch that runs the place needs to feel how she makes all of us feel. Maybe she needs to be at the mercy of somebody else for a rx for bronchitis or cancer treatments and then she can give some compassion to all in need. I didnt ask to be broke or sick and im really trying to get my job to 80 % to get health coverage just to tell that woman how kind she has been to the needy!!!!

    April 28, 2012 at 09:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. roxanne

    I don't know why some of the comments here are so critical of Dr. Zaya's faith and using prayer to help him cope with his illness. He most certainly didn't turn his back on medicine–read again what he went through with drugs–24 rounds of chemo, 18 different drugs, and 2 transplants. The man believes in the power of medicine, but he also believes in the power of faith and love. And healing can come in different forms, regardless of what your body is experiencing. For this man, the power of love and faith brought purpose to his life, and made his more determined to make the most of whatever time he has left. He is making his life count for something, and adding meaning to his existence, regardless of what the medical report shows. And sometimes we pray and don't get the response we want, but for many people (and I used to work in healthcare), healing comes as peace of mind, coming to terms with life, forgiveness before it is too late, the desire to break free and do things that they were afraid to do before, and so on. I cried when I read this, because here is a man who may very well be seeing the end of his life very soon, but he is focused on love and what he can bring to the world. That is his legacy, his footprint on this earth, and I think that his life is now far richer than many of us who enjoy "perfect health." God bless you Dr. Zayas. May you continue to do your work and bring joy and love to the world.

    April 29, 2012 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply
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    May 9, 2012 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
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