Alsip man thankful for life itself after leukemia battle
BY JAIME ANGIO Correspondent November 21, 2012 5:04PM
Caesar Gaytan (right) and wife Yvette Thursday, November 1, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 23, 2012 6:02AM
Caesar Gaytan, a married father of four, is going to be working on Thanksgiving Day.
He’ll pull a security shift at a local retail store and isn’t sure what time he’ll make it to feast at his in-laws’ home.
But feeling thankful won’t have to wait until dinnertime. It’s an ongoing sentiment for the Alsip man, who is grateful just to be alive.
To look at Gaytan, 37, one wouldn’t know just what he has been through. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, he looks healthy, and he has what amounts to a new immune system.
But before the blessings of a bone marrow transplant came his way, Gaytan endured a three-year battle against acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow most common in people at least 65 years old.
There were countless medications taken. Rounds of radiation that burned his skin. One type of chemotherapy after another, transforming into an unrecognizable figure. Then, after remission, a relapse. And isolation, even from his family, for 100 days.
But the emotional roller coaster finally seems to have leveled off. Last month, Gaytan, a graduate of Brother Rice High School and St. Xavier University, was the “Honored Hero” for the annual Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Light the Night Walk in Chicago. The honor came after he celebrated being in remission for one year in February.
“It changed our lives completely,” Caesar’s wife, Yvette, said about his fight. “Maybe before there were things we took for granted. Our family, we were busy in our own different ways. Now we take the time to take the littlest things we do and value it.”
The holidays are particularly meaningful — Caesar went from being in remission into a relapse during the holiday season in 2010. Now, when he and Yvette are in a store and a Christmas song comes on, “We get emotional. We get goose bumps,” she said.
On Father’s Day in 2009, Gaytan woke up with chest pains and had difficulty breathing.
He had always been active, since growing up in Chicago’s Brighton Park community, playing baseball and soccer, and rarely fell ill. So when something “just wasn’t right,” he went to the emergency room at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
“It was the last thing I expected: I went in for a cold and came out with cancer,” Gaytan said.
The diagnosis: AML.
‘I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was freaking out,” he said. “ ‘How do you get this? Where does this come from? Did I catch this?’ ”
Gaytan had heard of AML but knew nothing about it.
Aggressive treatment began right away.
“The first three days, I had three different types of chemo going through me,” he said. “I was so out of it, it was ridiculous. I was constantly vomiting, nauseous and very sensitive to smells, sounds and everything.
“I was beyond weak. I lost like 30 pounds within a 14-day period.”
Being in the hospital for 30 days pushed Gaytan through the breaking point mentally.
“ ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ ” he recalled thinking.
But the fight awaiting him wasn’t about himself. He had his family to consider — Yvette, sons Caesar and Miguel, and daughters Aylin and Abby.
“As quick as the thought came in, that’s how quick the thought was gone,” he said, “because I started thinking about these guys.”
There would be several trips back and forth to hospitals, for illnesses, chemotherapy, bone marrow biopsies.
Then the sun shone again. He went into remission in December 2009 and returned to his job in the Cook County Sheriff’s department in May 2010.
“It was a huge victory for us, because it was a step closer back to normal,” he said. “Life was slowly getting itself back to what it was before I got sick.”
Just before Gaytan reached a full year in remission, routine bloodwork showed the leukemia was back. This time, there would have to be a bone marrow transplant.
Fortunately, Gaytan has six siblings, and his brother Juan was a match. The transplant took place in February 2011.
“It was pretty painless. It was almost like a blood transfusion,” Gaytan said.
But having to redevelop his immune system put him at risk. He would have to undergo full-body radiation and then spend 100 days in isolation.
“I had to stay in a hotel that works with the hospitals that basically has clean rooms,” he said. “They have special vacuums and the ventilation system is a lot different than the regular rooms.
“If I touched anything, I had to wash my hands about 100 times a day. I would always joke that we would have to buy stock in hand sanitizer because we used so much of it.”
While he was locked away, Gaytan’s co-workers chipped in and bought a computer so he could “see” his family.
“Being away from them, if I talked to them on Skype, with my son being so little and missing a lot of stuff, it was just really hard,” he said. “I’m not an emotional person, and there were moments I would be an emotional wreck.”
Back to normal
With the transplant having been successful, Gaytan marked a year in remission in February and is back at work. After six years at the Cook County sheriff’s boot camp and four at the county jail, he now is an instructor for the sheriff’s training academy at Moraine Valley Community College.
Despite his beating cancer, Gaytan disagrees that he is a “hero,” as he was designated for last month’s annual Leukemia & Lymphoma Society walk.
Gaytan walked and raised funds for the third year with his team, “Caesar’s Fight.”
“If anyone should be honored, it should be them,” he said of his wife and kids. “It’s the caregivers, the family, those who support you ... those are the real heroes.”
He said the walk itself “is an amazing thing. The energy and the emotion that’s there is beyond words. I can’t fight back the tears. It’s a mixture of happiness and sadness.
“They tell the supporters to raise their balloons, and there’s a ton of red balloons everywhere, and they tell the survivors and you see a huge amount of survivors, and they tell those who have lost a loved one to raise their gold balloons in honor of them and, unfortunately, there is just as much ...
“That’s what drives us to want to do this,” he said. “When they asked me to be honored, I said, ‘Yeah,’ because I don’t want to see that many gold balloons anymore.”
The Gaytans attend LLS events year-round to raise both awareness and funds for research and hope for a cure. The efforts aren’t lost on LLS executive director Pam Swenk.
“At LLS, we are exposed to many stories that have difficult endings,” she said. “When we are able to have an exceptional and heroic story like Caesar’s, it makes an incredible difference for everyone in the blood cancer world.
“It makes a difference for those who are facing a diagnosis, for their caregivers and families. It makes a difference for our doctors and researchers because they know what they are doing is showing results. And it helps our wonderful volunteers embrace an incredible joy about the difference they are making.
“We celebrate Caesar and his devoted family, not only for their ability to overcome and overcome again, but also for being willing to share that there can be a happy ending. Even if it is hard to get there.”
A lot has changed for Gaytan. He certainly doesn’t take anything for granted; nor does he sweat the small stuff.
“I’m not sure how that worked, but it happened for a reason, and I’m still here for a reason,” Gaytan said. “I’m not sure what it is, but I’m going to take advantage of every day that I’ve got.
“I’m just so thankful for life and that I’m here. Every little thing that I have, and just getting up in the morning, is just being thankful. I’m thankful for the support and prayers and that I made it through.”