For most people, your freshman year of college is a year of transformation. For Andres Montero, it was just that and more — but not in the way you’d expect.
In 2019, Montero decided he was going to become a vegetarian as his New Year’s resolution. He thought it would be in his best interest to get blood work done before he made this transition, though, just to be sure this new lifestyle would be one he could healthily adapt to. Little did he know that these precautionary tests would completely alter the course of his life.
On Jan. 1, 2020, Montero was out with friends when he got a call from his parents saying that he needed to go to the emergency room. There was an issue with the results of his blood work.
He and his family believed it must have been a fluke — he was perfectly healthy and showed no symptoms of an illness. After rushing to the hospital to make sure they hadn’t confused his results with someone else’s, Montero’s life changed forever: he was diagnosed with leukemia.
At that point in time, Montero had had cancer for roughly a few weeks. Had he not run those tests, he likely would’ve become very ill. At the time the tests were run, Montero was 19 — “just a kid” — he was young, he was active and he was in seemingly perfect health. His diagnosis was a shock to not only him, but his friends and family.
Montero’s diagnosis rocked his family to its core. The Montero family had never been personally affected by cancer making this their first encounter with the illness. To add to the impact, it was happening to their firstborn child and only son.
“I was kind of my family’s golden child,” Montero disclosed. “It was hard being the person who everyone [in your family] looks and going through that … I know seeing me go through what I did hurt my family a lot.”
Montero told VALLEY that his diagnosis was particularly hard for his sister Mia, who was 11 at the time he started chemotherapy.
“She kept up a good front in the beginning,” he admitted. “Once I started losing my hair and feeling sick every day, she broke down.”
Montero’s diagnosis came not long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, which drastically changed the course of his treatment. While he normally would’ve been allowed more visitors or had the option to partake in other activities, he spent much of his time in his hospital room alone —there was a time where Montero was in the hospital for 23 consecutive days.
“I was stuck in that room, unable to do anything,” Montero said. “You just lose your mind. I think that was the lowest point.”
Montero’s friends and family created the ultimate support system while he was actively receiving treatment. Taking a leave of absence during his freshman year of college, Montero’s core friend group banded together to be there for him. One of his friends, Ricky, had a brother who also battled cancer, so he knew the kind of friend he needed to be for Montero during this time.
Many of his friends (both from school and home) were able to visit him while he was receiving treatment: this meant that they had to follow strict COVID-19 guidelines in order to see him, which isn’t lost on Montero and certainly didn’t go unappreciated.
“I know how much my friends sacrificed to see me,” he said. “They knew how bad it would’ve been if I got COVID, and they were so careful just so they could see me.”
The first time Montero returned to State College after his diagnosis was in October of 2020. In the moment he was admittedly “nonchalant” about what a big deal, but knows now how incredible it was for him to come back.
“Just being there felt normal,” he recalled. “I didn’t think about it until I was back home, but that’s when I realized that that’s what I missed most — being that normal kid.”
Montero received chemotherapy at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey. Since he was 19, he was able to be checked into the pediatric unit of the hospital. Montero was one of the oldest patients in his unit, but he didn’t mind at all — in fact, this inspired him more than it did anything else.
“They kind of look up to you,” Montero said. “I almost felt like sometimes I had to show a front and be a positive example. I kind of wanted to be their role model.”
Being around children who were so much younger than him and going through the same thing — “all some of them know is chemo” — is one of the things Montero says got him through his own chemotherapy.
Another inspiration of Montero’s during his time in treatment was his education liaison, Joann Spera. Due to his treatment, a semester off was needed and Speara was responsible for helping him work logistics out with the university. Speara wasn’t just another administrator in the hospital, but a friend and outlet.
“She took me aside one day and said ‘I know how you feel, but don’t let this define you,'” Andres said.
Nobody knew at the time (“because she looked perfect — she was in great health”), but Speara was also battling cancer. She was in chemotherapy at the same time as Montero and this was when he realized that there was so much more that he could do than just sit around and be sad.
“I was trying to be like her — I wanted to help others,” Montero said.
Montero is now in remission but is still in the maintenance stage of his recovery. He takes oral medicine daily, receives a blood transfusion once a month and is currently in the process of testing out a new drug meant to treat cancer. Ruxolitinib is found in many other cancer treatments and Montero’s doctors have him taking it twice a day for two weeks biweekly. Should this be the case, ruxolitinib could be implemented in the early stages of treatment for other cancer patients.
“If something I can do could potentially help someone else, I want to do that for them,” he said. “I wanted to be that person.”
Montero’s life has changed since entering remission — he’s come back to school and has been able to return to his favorite activities. Traveling, adventuring with friends, learning how to cook and more.
Out of the entirety of his return to (almost) normalcy, he’s most enjoyed returning to one of his favorite places — the gym. Andres was cleared to start working out again in April, which has greatly impacted his physical and mental health.
“That’s always been my safe haven,” Montero said.
After finishing chemotherapy, Andres made the decision to get involved in THON. His personal experience with cancer has inspired him to “do his part” in helping others on their journey. He now serves as the Family Relations Chair of Eclipse, which has created an “unspoken connection” between himself and Eclipse’s THON family, the Reedys.
“It’s opened up a new conversation — I’ve been through it and they [the Reedys] have seen the ugly side — but sometimes you just don’t want to talk about it,” Montero said. “I feel like we’ve found that staple kind of wave of how our conversations flow.”
Montero says it’s most rewarding to see Jeremiah, Eclipse’s THON child, just get the opportunity to be a normal kid.
“His mom was telling me about him starting school and learning how to play catch, and that’s the kind of stuff I like to hear about the most,” he said.
Of all the major changes in Andres’ life post-chemotherapy, the most drastic change is his outlook on life itself.
Montero says he is much calmer now than he was pre-diagnosis — “I’m much less amped up” — and that he’s less focused on what’s coming next and more on what’s happening right now.
“I always used to focus on the future — I wanted to skip over this [that part of my life] and be an adult,” Montero said. “Now I’ve realized that I really have to take in everything because it can change so quickly. Every moment, if it’s bad or if it’s good, I wanna be there.”
Montero told VALLEY that his biggest lesson throughout chemotherapy was that he couldn’t dwell on the negative. Roughly one month into treatment, Andres became fairly ill. He had contracted a stomach bug and was in constant pain — he was so sick that his doctors were actually considering putting him in a coma. It was at that point, he said, that he told the doctors to just let him die.
“I just didn’t want to do it any more,” he admitted. “I was at such a low point… Going through that, though, I realized just how much I didn’t want to die… I realized just how much I wanted to live and just be me.”
Andres’ advice for anyone struggling right now is the same thing he told himself amidst chemotherapy:
“Keep going,” he stated. “Put your head down and keep going. You can do this.”