The Indomitable Will to Live
By Tim Meehan
There is a plethora of stories written all over the country every spring about resiliency and overcoming massive barriers to success, particularly around the subject of graduation.
And then there’s the story of Juan Alva. And the simple but powerful motto he has lived by – you don’t know how tough you are until being tough is the only option you have.
Staring death in the face
Alva’s mom left when he was 12. He learned to be independent while relying on his father for most of his physical and emotional needs.
Growing up in a broken home can break some people, but it only strengthened Alva and his relationship with his father. The void left him without things others take for granted. But it also turned him into the compassionate, resourceful and strong man who entered Cal State San Marcos with hope and a little chip on his shoulder.
But the road became rougher when, in his second year on campus, his father was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. This lung disease is brutal, especially when you must watch a loved one endure it. As it progresses, the lung tissue becomes damaged, which makes it more difficult for the lungs to work properly. A slow but gradual shortness of breath ensues, and the average survival is three to five years.
Alva spent the next couple of years taking care of his father while juggling a double major in psychology and sociology.
He watched his father slowly wither way until he died during what was supposed to be his final semester at CSUSM.
Then it all came crashing down.
So close to the finish line
Distraught over the loss, the pandemic hit Alva even harder than most.
He had put so much time, money and energy into caring for his father to the end, he was left unemployed due to the worldwide shutdown. Also without a place to live, Alva was unable to finish his final semester of college with about a month to go.
To hear him describe it, the remainder of Alva’s extended family did not offer the necessary help.
“My family fell apart after my father passed away,” he said. “But every single tragedy in our lives, those are just our next challenges. I think toughness is developed all the time. You should always look back and reflect about the things that you have overcome and realize that you are tougher than all that. So I remember all of my heartbreaks and disappointments and realize that I'm tougher, and that helped me know how to overcome.”
And then life knocked him down again, this time with an uppercut straight to the chin.
Shortly after quitting school, Alva started to have a chronic sore mouth.
He saw doctors, but mostly via telehealth because of the pandemic. None of the doctors seemed concerned about his symptoms, mostly because he was not a smoker.
But the soreness and uneasy feelings didn’t go away. Eventually he was able to be seen in person. A biopsy was ordered, and the tests came back with the worst possible news – cancer of the tongue.
Facing obstacles that would destroy many of us, Alva underwent surgery to have almost half of his tongue removed.
He also immediately began a course of treatment that included radiation and chemotherapy in hopes of the cancer not spreading to other parts of his body.
The result has affected his ability to speak clearly, but it hasn’t changed his willingness to make the world a better place.
“I promise you it’s going to be OK,” Alva said. “The reason? I'm still here. I've learned how tough I am. And we're 100% capable of rising to the occasion. Cancer is very painful. Chemotherapy is a pure poison. And they inject you with as much poison as possible that hopefully kills the cancer. And you feel the poison. You feel nostalgic, feel scared, feel tired. At one point I was so drowsy that I wasn't sure if I had enough energy to take a next breath. But I was so tired of that. I was too tired to be afraid of dying.”
He spent more than two years fighting off a return of the cancer.
Then it came back.
Staring death in the face, Part II
Cancerous tumors were discovered in both of Alva’s lungs last fall.
Most likely a result of the cancer traveling south, it meant a return to the treatments that made him sick in 2020. He eventually was diagnosed with stage four cancer, also known as metastatic cancer because it spread from its original location in the body.
Stage four cancer doesn’t always mean impending death, but in Alva's case, the prognosis was grim.
Doctors recommended hospice care to make him more comfortable at end of life.
But those doctors seemed to forget how tough this patient was.
“They told me I was done,” Alva said back in March. “And I said I’m not done as long as I have hope. And I kept fighting, and I'm still fighting at the moment.”
Recently, immunotherapy has allowed his entire immune system to attack the cancer.
He recently met with his oncologist, who alerted him that the CT scan showed no signs of cancer.
“Your story has that positive ending you hoped for,” he wrote in a recent email.
A culture of care
Alva is quick to praise the faculty that has supported him in his long, winding journey at CSUSM.
He remembers when psychology department chair Dustin Calvillo showed him compassion and grace when Alva was caring for his father. He said practically every faculty member he came in contact with in both psychology and sociology has positively influenced him in one way or another.
He feels he’s better prepared for life thanks to the culture that exists among CSUSM faculty.
“We are all awed by Juan's perseverance,” said Liora Gubkin, the dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences. “It’s a testament to the impact of science and the power of the human spirit, coupled with the support of key people and mentors in life, that Juan is still here with us. Watching him walk across the stage at next month’s graduation ceremony will be a proud moment for all of us.”
He will walk at graduation with his head held high, knowing he is meant to be here.
He stared death in the face multiple times and never blinked.
“The end of hope is the end of new opportunities and of growth,” Alva said. “But life is the opposite. As long as you have life, you have a challenge for new love, new opportunities, new joy, new experiences. So as long as you have life, you have hope.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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