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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 28, 2007

Lucky charm

 •  A basket of range balls and a message of hope

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Chris Pablo, 11-year survivor of cancer, pictured with his lucky "Beat Leukemia" golf ball at his home in Temple Valley. Pablo found the golf ball on the driving range at Ko'olau Golf Club back when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Photos by ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, a "paniolo" evening with dinner and dancing

6 p.m. Nov. 3

Sheraton Waikiki hotel

$150; tables of 10 are available for $3,000, $5,000 and $10,000


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Chris Pablo, an 11-year survivor of cancer, at home with his wife Sandy and sons 18-year-old Nathan, left, and 15-year-old Zachary, right. Pablo is holding his lucky "Beat Leukemia" golf ball, which represents survival and the battle to find a cure.

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They've stopped him at the grocery store and called him at home, each one a stranger. They've sought him at public gatherings and found him in hospital hallways.

For the past 11 years, people have come to Chris Pablo with the same agonizing question: How can they survive cancer?

In that time Pablo never turned down a request for advice, because he understood the fears of his questioners. He had beaten cancer when the odds said he wouldn't.

"I think many of them want to know, from someone who has been through it, what to expect," Pablo said. "Some of them are actually looking for hope and inspiration as well. They want to know if they are going to be OK. Or if not, how do they prepare."

Pablo's role as counselor led the American Cancer Society to select him as this year's Patti Schuler Recognition Award recipient. He'll be honored at the society's eighth annual Boots on the Beach fundraiser, Nov. 3 at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Pablo, who is also the outgoing chairman of the society's board of directors, is convinced there are more deserving recipients. Helping others is simply what you do if you get this far, he said.

"I am a believer that this is an obligation of survivorship," he said.

The 56-year-old Temple Valley resident has always stressed to cancer patients that they can survive and lead productive lives.

"There was a time when people died from cancer, when more people were dying than surviving," he said. "But with today's advances in medicine, people survive."

Pablo's problems began on Mother's Day weekend, 1995. He bit his tongue while eating dinner, and the bleeding wouldn't stop. He was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

His doctors told Pablo, a husband and father, that he had a 30 percent chance of survival and only one real cure: a bone marrow transplant.

It put him in a community of need. On any given day, 6,000 cancer patients nationwide wait for a transplant. To beat the odds, Pablo needed to find someone willing to donate marrow. That meant community donor drives it meant asking for help.

But Pablo was uncomfortable asking for himself alone, so he asked for everyone else as well. At drives for the Hawai'i Bone Marrow Registry, he reminded people that their marrow may not match his, but could easily match another needy cancer patient.

His optimism was infectious, inspiring donations from Filipinos, many of whom would not ordinarily donate for religious reasons. Many Filipinos believe they need to keep their body whole for Judgment Day, Pablo said. But by example, Pablo was able to communicate the life-saving value of becoming a donor.

The truth of his message would touch Pablo's life in a way he never expected.

At the same time Pablo was holding donor drives, one needy patient was a toddler who made leukemia a household word in Hawai'i Alana Dung. People statewide sought to save the girl's life, and more than 31,000 new donors were registered.

One of those donors was a man from Kaua'i whose marrow couldn't help Alana. But it was a match for Pablo.

Alana found a match, too. She lived for 15 months. Pablo attended her funeral, aware of just how lucky he was.

Pablo's wife, Sandy, said her husband's battle with cancer left him deeply humbled.

"He realizes that it can happen to anybody," she said. "He certainly appreciates that he has been given an extra 11 years. He still can't get over that his outcome was so amazing."

Modern medicine still can't save everyone. It's a brutal side of cancer the Pablos know, as well.

"We just saw so many people die," Sandy Pablo said. "We both thought: Why are we being spared?"

Their family could not escape the experience. But when they sat down for dinner with their sons Nathan is now 18, and Zachary is 15 they found good lessons in what had happened.

"It relates to the way we all look at life," Sandy Pablo said. "That when obstacles come at you, you rise to the occasion. You don't back off. And you help other people who might be facing what you faced."

Pablo has been cancer-free since his Nov. 20, 1996, transplant at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Southern California.

Ever since, his life has been a journey of recovery. He exercises regularly and golfs once a week, often walking the course.

Some of the cure, the radiation and the chemotherapy, damaged Pablo's lungs and weakened his bones. He gets colds easily, and in January needed to have his left hip replaced. And he can't eat really hot kim chee.

But he insists his approach to life has never been more upbeat. No problem can be as challenging as a transplant, he said.

Even when he lost a 15-year job at Kaiser Permanente Hawai'i in May, Pablo felt he could take it in stride. A month later, he was hired by the law firm Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel.

"Somehow, you get a sense of calm amidst things that would be a crisis," he said.

In his survival, Pablo discovered a faith in strangers. It was a belief he couldn't ignore. Help can come from anyone. It made differences seem trivial.

"You know, it took a stranger to give me a chance at life," he said. "It could have been anybody. You can't pick your lifesaver. You have to be accepting and tolerant of people. You never know who will be the Good Samaritan."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.