Wife's cancer battle buoys Guerrero as he looks to resume career
Casey Guerrero, wife of boxer Robert, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010
The fight took a miraculous turn when a donor for bone marrow was discovered
Robert returns to the ring Saturday vs. Selcuk Aydin (10 p.m. ET/PT, Showtime)
The waiting was the worst of it. Oh, the drive from Gilroy, Calif., to Tucson, Ariz., was pretty brutal. Twelve hours on the road, two young kids in the backseat, one thought flooding everyone's minds. But for Robert and Casey Guerrero, sitting there at an outdoor table at Miguel's Mexican Restaurant, a warm April breeze washing over them, waiting for the woman who changed their lives -- that was gut-wrenching. Every time a pair of headlights flashed or a door slammed, they would turn, look and hope. They had arrived at the restaurant a half hour early and every passing minute felt like a day.
Robert sipped slowly on a glass of water and occasionally mumbled something to his wife. But for the most part, he remained silent. He knew how long she had waited for this. That look on her face, that unmistakable blend of excitement and and nerves was one that he had worn into the ring too many times to count. Two years ago, Casey Guerrero was given a 50 percent chance to live. She had leukemia, which had spread from her blood up her spine and into her brain. She needed a bone marrow transplant and even if she got one, there were no guarantees it would take.
Two years ago, Casey was nearly taken from him. So Robert smiled, sipped and shut up.
* * * * *
Sometimes love is serendipitous. Other times it scouts your schedule, follows you down the street and tells your friends, brothers and cousins about it until the feeling is reciprocated. Casey O'Neal was 10 when she started to have feelings for Robert Guerrero, the little boy with the big smile who lived one block over in Gilroy. They went to different elementary schools back then but Casey would make sure she made her walk to school right when Robert was making his to the bus.
"She was always overly loud with her friends, trying to get my attention," Robert said. "Most times I was running late and was in a hurry to catch the bus. But she would always keep up."
They began dating at 14 and fell in love soon after. She liked him because he was good looking and always made her a priority. He liked her because she didn't smother him, allowed him to chase his dream of being a professional boxer without feeling guilty about spending long hours at the gym. They married in 2005, with Robert whisking Casey -- then seven months pregnant -- off to Reno with a few family members to get hitched. A daughter, Savannah, was born soon after, and a son, Robert Jr., came two years later.
There life was, in a word, perfect.
Then it wasn't.
Casey remembers when she first felt sick. It was the fall of 2007 when her glands started swelling, her face turned pale and she started throwing up all the time. She thought she had an ulcer. Doctors initially diagnosed it as a viral infection. She was weak but no one thought it was very serious. Antibiotics, bed rest and she would be back on her feet.
But a few days became a week and Casey was not getting better. Robert knew she was sick, but because he was training for a fight he didn't know how sick. He was preparing to defend his IBF featherweight title and was locked in on that.
On the day before he was scheduled to fly to the fight, Robert and Casey went to Robert's parents house for dinner. Casey ate. Then she threw up. When she emerged from the bathroom her eyes were scorched red, and a terrified look was blanketed across her face.
"As soon as I saw her, I told her, 'We're going to the emergency room," Robert said. "She didn't want to go. But just looking at her, you knew something was wrong."
It was. A blood test confirmed the Guerrero's worst fears: cancer.
"It was the worst feeling," Robert said. "Your immediate thought is, 'Is she going to die.' It's like getting punched in the stomach."
Robert wanted to cancel his fight. Casey wouldn't let him. You have worked too hard for this, she told him. You have to fight. Robert stayed a few extra days, sleeping on a cold hospital-room floor next to his wife. He made arrangements to fly into Tucson the day before the fight. He made weight, and the next day knocked out Martin Honorio 56 seconds into the first round. Hours later, he was on a flight back to California.
Casey started chemotherapy soon after. It worked for a while. Then it didn't. Her cancer went into remission. Twice. And it came back. Twice. To better attack the disease, doctors injected the chemo directly into her brain, a treatment that made Casey immediately throw up. She withered from 125 pounds to 98 in less than a year. In 2009, doctors finally delivered sobering news: The chemotherapy wasn't working, they said. Casey needed a bone-marrow transplant. Worse, because her two siblings were not a match, she had to sign up for the National Marrow Donor Program and hope for the best
In January 2010, Casey finally caught a break. Katharina Zech, a 20-year-old college student in Germany, was a match. Casey was quickly taken into surgery, where Zech's healthy cells was injected into her body. She was in isolation for a month, with limited visits from her children. "The doctors felt kids carry too many germs," Robert said.
"My son was only seven months old," Casey said, her voice choking up. "He needed his mom. It was really hard for me. The kids were so little. i just wanted to fight for my kids to still have their mom."
She did fight, with Robert by her side. Before Casey's surgery, Robert was scheduled to defend his newly won super featherweight title for the first time. But going into a camp while his wife was fighting for her life simply was not an option. So Robert vacated his title and suspended his career. During the day, he would sit by his wife's side, talking to her when she was up for it, swabbing the blood blisters that formed inside her cheeks and down her throat when she wasn't. At night he would go home, help feed his kids and tell them, wishfully, that Mommy was getting better.
Fortunately, she was. Within a few weeks Casey's white and red cell count started to return to normal. After about a month, she was allowed to go home. Life was difficult for a while -- she had to essentially re-train her body to hold down solid foods -- but each day was better than the one before. Soon, she was able to play with her kids. When she went back to see her oncologist, the news got better: the cancer was in remission.
As the joy swept through Casey's mind, another thought popped in: I need to know who saved me.
* * * * *
Another door slammed shut and, finally, the moment had arrived. There is a condition the Guerreros agreed to before the surgery: No contact with the donor for two years, and even then only with the hospital serving as an intermediary. Casey started communicating with Katharina as soon as she was allowed, swapping letters and, eventually, emails regularly. But this was the moment she had been waiting for.
The two embraced, the emotion pouring out of them. "I really appreciate it," Casey said, her voice quivering. For two hours, Katharina sat with the Guerrero's, swapping stories, laughing with the family she helped save. "She is an amazing person," Robert said. "There is no way to thank her for what she did for us."
Life has resumed to normal for the Guerrero's. Casey received another clean bill of health from her doctors last week. Robert's career is back on track, too. He resumed his career in April 2010 and has won four fights in a row. On Saturday he will move up to welterweight and challenge Selcuk Aydin at the HP Pavilion in San Jose (10 p.m. ET/PT, Showtime). Casey will be there. Katharina, for the first time, will be right beside her.
"We call each other sisters," Casey said. "We're family now. She is a part of us."
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