20-year-old Pablo Raez is perhaps the epitome of a young man who possesses an unwavering lust for life and lives out his dreams with an ever present smile, amid all the struggles he has already faced at a tender age.
Despite being born in the popular tourist hub of Marbella in Southern Spain, Raez has been enamoured with sports for as long as he can remember and such a passion led him to devote most his childhood working towards an ambitious dream of becoming an athlete. “I have practiced sports pretty much since I have had consciousness,” he says with an endearing grin.
Basketball was Raez’s first love and he trained with the local Marbella team for nearly a decade, spending countless hours on the court to hone his craft. However, a serious knee injury meant that the burgeoning talent was forced to leave his beloved sport, even before he had a chance to chase the aspirations of turning professional.
Not one to be disheartened, Raez channeled his enthusiasm for basketball elsewhere by getting into sports such as roller hockey and water polo, and having dabbled around in various endeavors, he eventually made a transition to the relatively new phenomena of CrossFIT, as one of the nutritionists at a gym advised him to sign up for a nationwide competition after noticing his natural athletic ability.
Following the encouragement, Raez focused all his attention towards the event and with his eyes on the prize; underwent a grueling seven month training regime.
A new challenge
Every so often, life’s harsh truths crush dreams and ambitions, and unfortunately, the happy-go-lucky Raez’s world completely turned upside down just a few months ahead of his much anticipated participation in the bodybuilding tournament in 2015.
Recalling the dreaded moment, Raez explains in a video for MyProtein, “On March 26, 2015, I was diagnosed with leukemia for the first time. I was getting ready for bodybuilding at the time and was diagnosed just a month before I was due to compete.
“It all started when I was going to operate on my right knee and for the anesthesia, I underwent an analytical. The results showed that I had low platelets. That day they (the doctors) had warned me. They did a puncture test in the marrow and it was later confirmed.”
Cancer is a horrible disease that can affect even the strongest and happiest person in the world, and Raez had every right to feel resentment at suddenly being afflicted with the terrible condition – especially after having maintained such a healthy lifestyle.
However, Raez was not allowing any thoughts of anger or self-pity to enter his mind and as he has done throughout his life, faced the challenge head on.
Raez knew that the battle against cancer would prove to be much tougher than any punishing session in the gym and he explains the extent of the toll his body went through, “I lost 22 kilos and lost 80% of my vision. I took a month and a half away from the hospital, in which I was recovering at home, and then returned for the bone marrow transplant that I received from my father.”
Recovery and Relapse
Following a successful operation, Raez made very good progress in his recovery over the next 12 months and it seemed like the young man would return to being healthy. This would sadly not prove to be the case though.
With a hint of pensiveness, he says, “The transplant lasted 35 days and I did not enter again. I was going to revisions, first twice a week, then once a week and then every two weeks. At the time, I recovered my sight, regained weight and was getting strong. In April 2016 though, I was with diagnosed with leukemia again.”
Having gone through such an uphill battle the first time, even the extremely strong-minded Raez was left scared and did not want to return to the hospital. He eventually had to come to terms with his condition and a month-and-a-half after learning about the second diagnosis, Raez mustered up the courage to go back for treatment in July 2016.
While Raez may have been ready to face another duel with leukemia, he needed the assistance of a new bone marrow donor to continue the battle. Finding a willing donor is a very difficult task due to the false perception that the process is very painful and that donating could put the donor’s own health at risk.
Such a predicament would have left many in a helpless limbo but going down without a fight was simply not part of Raez’s DNA. Rather than losing hope, he went on an ambitious mission to raise awareness about bone marrow donations through the power of social media – not to find a donor for himself, but to spread the truth about bone marrow donation, the shortage problem at the moment and regarding how timely donation could save so many lives.
Addressing misconceptions about bone marrow donation, he says, “If you are lucky enough to be compatible with someone, you are called and the bone barrow is extracted with a needle in a completely painless way, not with a scalpel.”
Social Media revolution
These days, social media has proven to be a tool to fulfill people’s never ending thirst to appease their vanity but the medium can also be used to promote a noble cause such as Raez’s and many people seemed to connect with the story, with his campaign catching on like wildfire in just a matter of weeks.
He says, “It (the social media campaign) all started when I was in need of the marrow. At that moment, I had 3,000 followers on Instagram and a thousand on Facebook.
“So I decided to tell people how important it was to donate as this could not only help one person, but so many more and what differentiated my message from the rest was that I did not ask (the marrow) for myself.
“I wanted to raise awareness about the millions of people in need. That caught the attention of people and then so many more started following me.”
His message struck such a chord with people all around the world that Raez’s social media presence grew exponentially and he now has over 400,000 followers on Instagram. Many have shown tremendous support for Raez as well as his cause and his struggle against leukemia was one of the most searched Google topics in 2016.
Thanks to his awareness campaign, new enrollees as bone marrow donors in the province of Malaga rose more than one thousand percent over a span of just one month. Only 91 people had attended the city’s Bone Marrow registry in July and following Raez’s contribution, the number increased to 1,002 the following month.
The battle continues
With the social media cause gaining popularity by the minute, an inspired young woman from the United States offered to donate her bone marrow to aid Raez’s own fight with cancer and although her identity is not known due to confidentiality, the wonderful gesture has paved the path for the Spaniard’s recovery.
The transplant went through without complications but Raez is waiting for the bone marrow to start generating defenses, platelets and hemoglobin. The 20-year-old still has a long way to go as he has a certain level of Leukemia left in the blood and the chemotherapy sessions are not something he particularly looks forward to.
“I am in a difficult process but not an impossible one,” he says, “After the second transplant, I have been informed that I still have 4% of Leukemia in the blood, and in the last few weeks, I have been going to the hospital for chemotherapy sessions, which does not make me feel good. But it is the process that I must follow to see a change.”
Even during a difficult stage of his recovery, Raez is continuing his relentless pursuit to encourage more people to donate and provide millions of sufferers, an opportunity for a second shot at life.
His message is simple, “To all the people who are thinking about becoming a donor, tell yourself not to be afraid. It is not dangerous to donate. We must continue to do so. Donate for your children, donate for a more united world.”
Regarding his own battle, Raez vows to continue fighting on and as always, he will do so with a smile on his face. “This is not a story of pain, but of strength and improvement,” he concludes, “Whether or not life allows me to continue, I will accept it with a smile and live to the maximum every day. It is today that counts and I am grateful to life for this opportunity.”
*(Pablo sadly passed away on February 25, 2017 after a two year long battle against Leukemia)