In the spring of 2019, Christian Bedolla was a teenager looking forward to graduating high school. Life was good – he was enjoying spring break with his friends and had just started dating a girl. He had always known he wanted to be a firefighter, and he was right on schedule to begin fulfilling his dream.
But without warning, Bedolla fell ill. A trip to the hospital was the start of a year-long journey that led to him being diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer: subcutaneous panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma, which affects tissue just below the skin. All of a sudden, Bedolla’s dreams seemed in danger.
On the recommendation of his primary care physician, Bedolla and his family came to City of Hope, where they met hematologist-oncologist Jasmine M. Zain, M.D., director of the T Cell Lymphoma Program at City of Hope’s Toni Stephenson Lymphoma Center. Bedolla knew he had found the right physician.
For the next several years, Bedolla was able to treat his disease with medications, including prednisone, romidepsin, and methotrexate. However, in September 2022, he experienced a relapse.
In December 2022, Bedolla enrolled in a clinical trial at City of Hope studying an investigational drug — an antibody that treats blood cancers like this. One end of the antibody attaches to a protein associated with certain rare lymphomas. The other end attaches to a type of cell called a natural killer cell that can then destroy the tumor.
“This investigational drug is a remarkable technology that engages the patient’s own immune system in the fight against cancer,” said Zain. “The advantage of this approach is that there is minimal damage to other tissues. It is currently in clinical trials, and it is hoped that this will benefit patients with rare hematologic malignancies for whom there are no approved treatments. Trials like this are part of City of Hope's commitment to deliver state-of-the-art care to all patients, including those with rare diseases.”
Committed to service
Bedolla says the treatment is proving effective and his life plans are back on track. He and the girl he had just started dating are an inseparable grown couple, and he is moving forward with his dream of becoming a firefighter.
Bedolla’s eyes light up as he describes his meticulously planned career path. He is currently a cadet with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) and working as an emergency medical technician; he plans to start the Santa Ana College Fire Academy program in 2024. After that comes the OCFA Academy and its firefighter trainee program, followed after graduation by serving his community as a firefighter for years to come.
“Christian has shown myself and everyone he encounters that he is dedicated to this trade,” said firefighter-paramedic Brandon Hasebe, Bedolla’s fire cadet post-advisor. “Christian has been through something that few have gone through. While undergoing intense medical treatment, he would still show up to the fire station with passion and a drive to learn. Christian has that passion and drive in life that we look for in the fire service.”
Bedolla, now 20, spoke with City of Hope about his journey.
How long have you wanted to be a firefighter?
I knew I wanted to be a firefighter since I was a baby. There was never another career option that ever sounded as interesting. When I relapsed last year, June to August was a rough patch. I was even questioning my ability to be a firefighter. But I feel good now and am just finishing up my fire tech classes. I should be able to apply for the academy, if my health permits, by the end of the year!
When did your symptoms first start?
One afternoon while I was at the mall, all of my symptoms hit. I was feeling nauseous, fatigued. I had a headache. I felt dehydrated, and I had to sit down. I went home and went to sleep. When I woke up, I still felt ill. After that, it was back-to-back hospital visits for about a year until I was diagnosed with subcutaneous panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma. Since then, I have gone through four different treatments and relapsed three times.
That had to be a lot to deal with as a teenager. What helped you get through it?
All of this made me grow up really quickly. I never really had those teenage years. There were a lot of factors that helped me. I met my girlfriend about a week before the day I first felt sick. She has stuck by my side for the past four years. I also have a huge family. I am an only child, but I have a bunch of cousins who I consider siblings because I grew up with them and even lived in the same household. And then my parents. They have been great; I can’t even explain how great they have been. My faith also played a big role.
How does the drug in your clinical trial work?
It’s given intravenously — once the medication goes in, one side of the protein looks for cancerous T cells to latch onto while the other side attracts healthy T cells, and together it allows the healthy T cells to kill the cancer T cells. My problem is my healthy T cells can't attach themselves to the cancer cells in order to destroy them.
How are you feeling now that the clinical trial has started?
I am honestly in the best shape of my life when it comes to me being sick because, every time I relapsed in the past, I lost 20 to 30 pounds within just a few months. With this recent relapse, I caught it early. We were well aware of what was happening, and working with Dr. Zain and my original oncologist meant we stayed on top of any side effects.
How important is it that your physician has expertise in your specific type of cancer?
It’s very important to have a cancer specialist because there are so many different types of cancer. A specialist is going to know about the science and the trials and the potential cures that may be coming down the road that can help you. When I started the methotrexate, the clinical trial had not opened yet. After I relapsed while on methotrexate, I was anxious about what my options were. Dr. Zain told us the great news of this new clinical trial that had just opened up and that I was a good candidate. It made us feel good because it gave us hope.
You say a positive approach has brought you a long way in your journey with cancer. What are some of the positives that are important to you?
I always remind myself that I have so many blessings in my life. So many people have helped me, and I want to dedicate myself to helping others. That’s why I want to be a firefighter. It’s like giving back. I’m grateful to be at City of Hope because I know I’ve got the best experts on my team who are working every day to help me get where I want to go. And I can’t wait to start the next chapter in life. To me, the path to the future is bright.