There’s only one way to set the mood to interview a woman like Sylvia Casillas and it involves an old-school hum-along to the theme of Rocky.
How else do you approach a woman who has battled leukemia twice while running seven half-marathons wearing a respirator?
Gettin’ strong now, flyin’ high now, indeed.
To match her story with her person, you need to imagine an app that allows you to merge two people’s spirits – like Snapchat does with Face Swap – and you will meet a woman with the dogged tenacity of Rocky Balboa and the fun-loving playfulness of Ellen Degeneres.
Her type of spirit is hard enough to come by in an ordinary life full of the pressures of adulthood in the Bay Area, but for a woman given her last rites by a Catholic priest in 2009 and then battling cancer two times, it’s even more remarkable.
Extreme exhaustion, bruising, and clusters of red pinhead capillary dots took her to the emergency room that fateful day in May 2009. Fortunately for her, the chief of oncology was on duty and immediately ordered tests that would get her the help she needed, in the nick of time.
The results showed a hemoglobin reading of four, which meant that her blood and organs were deprived of oxygen and at risk of failing. The staff was baffled that she could stand up and walk at those levels. She was immediately admitted to the hospital and did not resurface for a month.
“My life changed ten days after Mother’s Day that year. As a single mom to three daughters, I knew I had to not just live, but get healthy,” Sylvia says. “My three daughters keep me alive—they are the reason I get up every morning and fight.”
Sylvia’s fight plan included running, a sport she never really participated in before her cancer diagnosis. She joined Team In Training in Los Gatos and began running and fundraising and sharing her story with the support of her teammates.
She was well for three years and even broke a personal record at the Nike half-marathon in 2012. Then, she started feeling the same type of exhaustion that took her to the hospital the first time. Then, came the bruises and a diagnosis she knew before the test results came back.
This time, the doctors said she needed a stem cell transplant. They started looking for a match within her family, but came up empty. So, she was placed on the Be the Match registry and was told that she couldn’t have the transplant until she was in remission.
Sylvia fought and one month later was declared cancer-free.
She was matched with a donor in Houston, Texas who had joined the registry to try to help save the life of a friend’s daughter who suffered from the same disease. But, instead, he was matched with Sylvia, a stranger in San Jose, California whom he had no overt reason to make a sacrifice for. He did it anyway… even when a blood pressure complication would have made it easy for him to back out. Statistically, 30% of all potential donors don’t follow through with the procedure.
Knowing this gives Sylvia a tremendous sense of gratitude.
“They couldn’t tell me much about him—I really only knew that he was a man. I know it sounds crazy, but I ran out and bought a cake to celebrate and had them write ‘It’s a Boy’ on it. I had to celebrate the new chance at life this stranger was giving me,” Sylvia explains.
In true spirit, she took on the transplant process – with all of its risks and possibility for rejection – and made the best of it. She decorated the IV stand with a hat and eyes made of Styrofoam cups and named it Rico Suave. She took visits from friends who playfully nicknamed her “The Roach” for her likelihood to survive even a nuclear holocaust.
“I appreciate life a lot better now—I’m more grateful. When friends visit me during my treatments, they say they come to cheer me up, but they tell me they wind up being cheered up by me. I really have had everything taken away from me, everything from my work to my hair. But I get to be here and I am going to make the most out of every moment.”
Part of her celebration continues to be honoring her donor and the sacrifice he made to give her life. Once she was allowed to know his name and location a year after the transplant, she reached out to express her gratitude.
She now celebrates two birthdays, her birth date of Aug. 1 and the date she was given a new chance at life from her donor, Miguel Rosas, on Aug. 23. She sends greetings to him on his own birthday, Father’s Day, and whenever she runs a race, so that he can be reminded of the gift he gave her.
One of her life highlights was the day she got to meet Miguel when he was visiting San Francisco. “It was like the excitement of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all rolled into one for me,” she enthuses.
Sylvia has recently experienced some setbacks with what is called Graft vs. Host, a condition that occurs when donor bone marrow or stem cells attack the recipient. She isn’t letting it stop her. In fact, she was getting her costume ready for San Jose’s Zombie Run when I met with her, her third run this month.
Looking forward, Sylvia wants to help children with cancer. When she was a patient of E1 in Stanford Hospital’s oncology wing, she could see into the windows on the floor below that children were having treatments like her own. Now that she is healthy, she has applied for a job to be a patient companion to help kids through a journey she understands all too well. In the meantime, she volunteers at the infusion clinic there two times per week with adults going through treatment.
A dream of hers is to run The Great Wall Marathon in China within the next four years. “I would definitely need to fundraise to get there, but I have the will.”
There’s no denying that. If you need proof, just say the word “can’t” in her presence. Sylvia tells me with a laugh and a twinkle in her eyes that when her daughters do, she whips her head around in surprise and says, “Those must be your daddy’s genes—when did I ever quit?”
In a word: Never.
Cue the music as Bay Maker Sylvia Casillas – our hometown Rocky – runs the stairs (gettin’ stronger, flyin’ higher) while inspiring the heck out of her friends, family, teammates, and neighbors.
Silvia is currently fundraising with Team In Training for the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon 2017. Click here to make a donation in her name.