She was well on her way to reach the top of her world. With lofty goals within reach in just a few more years, she had no other plan for her life. Caren Deleon Evangelista was sure this was exactly where she was supposed to do.
But last year, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It derailed everything and put all of her plans on hold. Despite such life-altering event, the 38-year-old Evangelista remained positive. “It was a huge turning point in my life,” said the sergeant first class.
Such event was so sudden, Evangelista added, and so devastating. Yet, it brought out the inner strength in her she had only suspected.
The former Chalan Pago resident is now trying to put her life back together. And more than ever, she is resolved to forge ahead.
Now a resident of Highland Park in Chicago, IL., Evangelista has been fighting — and winning — the biggest battle of her life. But she is not out of the woods yet. There is still much to do, she said.
Before the tragedy struck, the active Guard seemed invincible. She had very high aspirations — Army promotions, military competition wins and body-building trophies to collect. “(My goal in the Army) was to retire as a Sergeant Major, an E-9,” Evangelista said via email. “I’m only an E-7 now.”
As a medical recruiter, she wanted “to help as many civilians as possible to become part of the greatest team in the world, the U.S. Army, and change their lives in a positive way.”
Evangelista was born in Santa Cruz, Laguna, a central province in the Philippines, and later migrated to Guam with her family at age 12. After Dededo Middle school, she completed her high school career at John F. Kennedy in Tamuning.
A decorated sergeant first class in the U.S. Army, Evangelista had no doubt she was going places. But she had no idea everything would come to a screeching halt. She was diagnosed with cancer on Feb. 1, 2018. “My plans of competing in body building and other Army competitions and promotions in my career were, suddenly, put on hold,” she said.
But she knew moping in the corner was not an option. Evangelista rolled up her sleeves and stuck out her arm for the doctors to go to work.
“My whole body started to itch like crazy, and that was the only symptom that caused me to see the doctors. The itching was a sign that my body was fighting off an infection,” she said in an email. “The doctors took blood samples every week for one month and a bone marrow biopsy confirmed it was leukemia.”
But that news did not put out the fire in her fighting spirit, it just made her even more determined to fight on. “I’m the first one in my family to have cancer,” she said, “and having cancer was the least of my worries.”
Evangelista has two children, Ethan and Calvin. “My kids are my inspiration! My fight is for them. And with cancer, I’m always winning!”
She believed, “Cancer never had a chance.”
Caren Evangelista with Jizan Evangelista Benavente and her child
Her winning episodes started with chemotherapy back in February 2018, followed by a stem cells transplant in July of the same year with new stem cells donated by her 34-year-old sister, Jizan Evangelista Benavente, a pharmacist at Guam Memorial Hospital.
“The intense chemotherapy in February was required prior to me receiving my new stem cells. The chemo killed off both the good and the bad cells, leaving my whole body weak. But it was necessary so I could receive my new stem cells from my sister. The new stem cells gave me new life. I don’t have my old stem cells anymore which had leukemia. Jizan is my hero. I’m not fully cured, yet,” she said, “still trying to get into remission.”
As Evangelista continues her road to recovery, she has to watch her diet and exercise and make sure she does not stress out her body too much. “My immune system is compromised. And I think not working and just focusing on healing at home has a huge impact in my recovery.”
Evangelista joined the Guam Army National Guard in 1998 before transferring to the Army Reserve in 2010. In 2014, she became part of the Active Guard Reserve which she is still a part today.
After being diagnosed with cancer, she was reassigned to a Warrior Transition Unit, where the Army gave her a new mission: “to complete my treatments and heal and recover until I can get back to work.”
“The military has been good to me and my family, very supportive and helpful. They are paying all my bills,” Evangelista said.
Going back into active service after full recovery, however, is another story, another fight. “I would love to stay in service but I have to go through an extensive process just to get back in,” she said. “It's another fight after beating cancer. The Army has to find me fit in order for me to go back to work. Otherwise, I will get a medical discharge.”
This is not an easy road, she said. In times like this, she said, she gets homesick. “I love Guam and I miss it very much,” she said.