Meet Cristal! Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Cristal is a spunky, resilient and big-hearted, daughter, sister, student and inspiration to many.
Cristal’s cancer story began during a college semester abroad in Spain. In the middle of her experience, she began to experience intense pain in her abdomen. She found a local doctor who told her that she needed to go home immediately. When she returned home, Cristal learned she had stage 3 Ewing Sarcoma – a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer. She was pulled away from her peer group and put through an aggressive treatment that included 17 rounds of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of daily radiation, a major tumor debulking surgery and a lot of time spent in the hospital due to cancer treatment and surgical complications such as a bowel obstruction. It was a quick and scary switch from frolicking the streets of Salamanca, Spain to spending time in a hospital bed fighting for her life.
Throughout this entire process, Cristal never lost sight of her goal of graduating. With an incredible amount of resilience and determination, along with the support of her university, family, and friends, she returned to school and graduated a year later, becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree!
Once she was given a clean bill of health, Cristal became determined to reclaim her body after her Cancer experience. She found out about UCF’s Cancer to 5K program – a free 12-week training program for cancer survivors. Given the opportunity to meet and train with other survivors, Cristal flourished and showed the world that she not only kicked cancer’s butt but could also run a 5K!
Upon crossing the finish line, Cristal met a member of the UCF staff who suggested she look into the 4K for Cancer program and bike across the country. She initially thought this was inconceivable, but by that June, Cristal had fundraised more than $4,500 for the Ulman Cancer Fund, was well-trained, and ready to start her journey. With 18 strangers, she hit the road – on her bike – heading out across the United States to support other young adults with cancer.
Cristal’s 4K journey was not an easy one, but it was undoubtedly incredible. She struggled in the beginning, learning how to push her body in a manageable way and how to make friends with these strangers who didn’t know her story yet. Having been isolated from friends and classmates during the two years she was in treatment, Cristal had become apprehensive about interacting with people in her own age group. Her 4K team became a supportive community that allowed Cristal to, in her own words, “catch up” with her peers.
Cristal was tested by times of frustration and challenge, but when asked why she was biking across the country, she would always say the same thing; to show other young adults with cancer that something like this is possible. You can survive and you can take your life back.
Throughout those 70 days, Cristal grew in a multitude of ways. She became an incredibly strong rider. She learned that she had to be patient with her body, but that she could, in fact, do this. She became one of the fastest riders on the team. She even gained the nickname “Hill Doctor” due to her awesome ability to conquer steep hills at impressive speeds. Even more incredible, however, was how Cristal changed as a person. She began opening up about her story and her struggles in ways she hadn’t done before.
While riding on the long roads of Idaho or Nebraska she would tell her teammates about what she went through and the people she met in the hospital and support groups, who inspired her to fight back against cancer. Each day, she dedicated her ride to a long list of people, including those who had fought cancer, were still fighting, or who had lost their battle. She created lasting bonds with her team, who supported and leaned on each other every second of their journey. One day of the ride, each member of the team surprised Cristal by dedicating their day to her.
While on the 4K, Cristal celebrated one year of being cancer free – her “Cancer-versary” as she called it. It is a testament to her persistence and strength that she was conquering this journey less than a year out of treatment. Throughout the 70 days of the 4K for Cancer, Cristal laughed and cried, fixed flat tires, and danced her way up hills. On August 12th, she rode across the Golden Gate Bridge next to 18 of her best friends, officially completing her 4,000-mile journey from coast to coast.
The programs of the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults helped Cristal to reboot her life after cancer, changing her perspective and connecting her with a community of support that became her family.