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Turning Pain into Purpose

Read Time: 5 minutes

Adrian Portillo comes home from another day of school and is reminded of his father, Fidel. From the pictures lining the halls to those filling photo albums, Adrian sees him. When he walks out back and spies the deck and shed his dad built, Adrian feels him. As Adrian retires to the renovated basement, another credit to his dad’s handywork, he heads to a back room filled with LEGO landscapes—the start of a small city. “I love to create things. Putting things together with my hands—that’s my dad coming through.”

“He’s like his father in a lot of ways—honest, smart, wants to do what’s best for people, a hard worker,” says Adrian’s mother, Maria. “He’s been through so much and I am very proud of the person he has become. His father would be, too.”

Adrian Portillo holding his fingers in a U shape while standing in front of a large red U on the University of Utah campus
Medical student Adrian Portillo

When Adrian was a senior in high school, he felt intense discomfort in his arm. “It felt like I had been punched. My athletic trainer thought I pulled a muscle. I knew something was different,” he says. The pain persisted even as Adrian graduated high school and started at Salt Lake Community College. “One day, I was bench pressing with a buddy and my arm just gave out. I couldn’t feel anything except for the bar— because it fell on my chest. I got an x-ray immediately and they found a mass pushing up against one of the main nerves in my arm.”

Adrian was referred to Huntsman Cancer Institute to meet with a sarcoma team. He wondered why he had been sent to a cancer hospital for arm pain. “I volunteered with Make-A-Wish during high school and met a girl with osteosarcoma who eventually passed. The gears started turning in my head and then it all clicked,” he says. “How did I get this rare cancer? I exercise. I don’t do anything that would cause this. I thought it was impossible. That was the lowest point.”

“Hardships can devastate us or motivate us. I wouldn’t have my drive to succeed without my experiences. I want to be able to take another family’s grief away.”

A biopsy showed a low-grade malignant tumor. Adrian was told there was a 70% long-term survival rate, which he took as the first good news during the whole process. Yet there was a chance the cancer could come back and spread. “It started to set in that life is fragile,” Adrian says. “People don’t usually get that experience at my age. It builds character.”

The first summer after surgery on his arm, doctors found a nodule in Adrian’s lung. At that point while he was still recovering, a biopsy wasn’t possible for another six weeks. Adrian started to think about whether he should be back in school or spend his time traveling the world. “I was a first-generation college student. My mom got her GED here in the U.S. and my dad did construction. That had always been my plan,” he says. Thankfully, the nodule turned out to be benign.

“I didn’t want to waste the second chance I had been given,” Adrian explains. “I felt that if I could overcome this, then I would want to dedicate my life to caring for others.”

During his time at Huntsman Cancer Institute, Adrian started to love medicine. “I was always interested, but my doctor, John Groundland, had an impact on me that I wanted to have on others. Seeing him take care of people—that dedication was inspiring. I remember talking to my care team and telling them I got into medical school. One of the physician assistants gave me a huge hug. They cared so much about me.”

Adrian recovering at Huntsman Cancer Institute after surgery to remove a mass in his arm.
Adrian recovering at Huntsman Cancer Institute after surgery to remove a mass in his arm.
Adrian receives his White Coat at the annual ceremony, a rite of passage for medical students.
Adrian receives his White Coat at the annual ceremony, a rite of passage for medical students.

However, another cancer diagnosis was about to occur. But not for Adrian.

In 2022, Fidel learned he had esophageal cancer and eventually passed away only a few weeks after retiring. “He worked in power plants and chemical plants, so he thought that’s what caused it. When he was diagnosed, I was so mad. My dad shouldn’t have to go through this,” Adrian says.

Adrian with his mother, Maria, and late father, Fidel.
Adrian with his mother, Maria, and late father, Fidel.

Instead of being hardened emotionally, Adrian’s resolve was strengthened. “I always admired my dad’s positivity and strength. I never saw him cry and I knew he wanted to. He worked in terrible environments and was underpaid because that’s all that was available to him. My dad’s passing just solidified that this is what I was meant to do.”

Adrian volunteered at Primary Children’s Hospital, offering support to Spanish-speaking parents. “They were stressed. Whether it was money, work, insurance, I just wanted to break down some of the barriers.” Adrian knew the importance of this role based on obstacles from his own experience.

“I remember asking people at school if they wanted to form a study group and they declined. Then I saw them all create a study group of their own, without me in it. My heart sank. Why am I different? Is it the way I talk? The way I dress? Then, another time, I had to draw blood from a patient at work. He said some nasty things about my roots. I was shocked and upset. But it’s who I am. I turned it into motivation. I love who I am and where I come from.”

“I felt that if I could overcome this, then I would want to dedicate my life to caring for others.”

Adrian knows people have misconceptions about him and that’s why he also knows he has to be an advocate for his culture. “There are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in Utah. I don’t think others know the struggles many of them face. My parents faced so many issues. That’s why I’m trying to build confidence in my community by diversifying the field of medicine, talking to people about their experiences, and sharing the troubles they’ve faced in order to move forward.”

Adrian has found his calling. He has been cancer free since 2018 on pace to graduate in 2027, and currently has an interest in orthopedic oncology. His brother, Josue, is carving his own path in pharmaceutical school.

“Grief is hard and losing someone isn’t easy. I miss my dad like crazy. I want to talk to him and share with him everything I have accomplished so far. Hardships can devastate us or motivate us. I wouldn’t have my drive to succeed without my experiences. I want to be able to take another family’s grief away.”

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Video Transcript

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I was a big athlete growing up, I loved sports. I loved being active. When it came to high school, I played baseball, and I was a wrestler. And I really did enjoy it. I think it kept me away from trouble. It kept me active; it kept me healthy.

My name is Adrian Leonardo Portillo. I'm 23 years old. I'm a native of West Valley City, Utah. I'm a medical student at the University of Utah.

So, I had just graduated. And I just got a job, not sure what I wanted to do yet. I had a lot of different things in mind and didn't think too much about healthcare. I always loved working with my hands and always putting things together. I thought I was going to go into like, something within the field of carpentry or just kind of following the footsteps of my dad. I slowly started realizing that I just started having pains every day. Every time I would do anything, even if it was just like a light workout, I would have these pains.

One day, I was bench pressing with one of my friends. And I remember immediately a shock ran up my arm and I just lost complete feeling in my left arm and the weights essentially fell on me. The bar, it fell on my chest. I went to the doctor because I had another concern with my elbow on my right arm. So that's kind of how I convinced myself because I was like, I don't want to go to the doctor for this. My elbow was my biggest concern because I played baseball and this was my throwing arm. I went in, got X rays, and the doctor came in, and he pointed out on the X-ray, a lesion. And I remember during that appointment, I kept saying, “Well, what about my elbow? How's my elbow?” And he's like, “I think we got other things to worry about.

I went to Huntsman, met with the sarcoma team and from there on out, I did a biopsy. And it was a couple weeks of just awful waiting. It was a periosteal osteosarcoma. If someone does get osteosarcoma, this is the one that you want to have. And obviously, no one wants osteosarcoma. But that's just kind of the good news that I was told. And for me, that changed a lot because it gave me hope and gave my family hope that I would be okay, at least long term.

We surgically removed it, and the margins were clear. And so that put me in a pretty good spot again, and I think the big snowball effect of all these things that were really motivating me to say if I'm going to be alive, I'm going to be alive for a reason. And so, that motivation helped me and to this day, I say, if I'm still here, I'm here for a reason.

Near the end of Adrian’s graduate studies at the University of Utah, his dad started to get sick.

I don't know how long he was having these symptoms, but he started to struggle swallowing. And immediately, I was concerned because he's, you know, tough. And even if you feel super sick, you won't see it. But I noticed that he would eat something and it almost would get stuck. And me and my mom were like, you should probably go see a doctor. And they did an endoscopy, I think that's what it's called. And they couldn't even go all the way down the way they're supposed to because there was a mass there. And it was so big that the scope, like I said, couldn't fit through. So, they pulled it out there, they did the biopsy, and essentially saying there's a tumor there. And the biopsy results did show it was  a form of adenocarcinoma, so he had esophageal cancer.

But by the time he was diagnosed, it was everywhere. He didn't get much of a chance to fight. And I think that was very hard on me because it almost seemed like it wasn't fair. And something that I would always trace in my experiences. I always thought that it wasn't fair, how I was able to kind of walk away and be okay and be healthy and be able to go to medical school and do all these things, while others weren't. I think he passed away a couple weeks after that.

I would do anything to be just half the man my dad was, I'm just grateful that I was able to learn a lot from him and use that experience to shape myself into the person that I want to be in the future. I think I really knew that I wanted to do something that would give me meaning in my life, like I'm actually serving a purpose in this world. And so, right away, I said, “I don't think there'd be anything else I'd want to do then be able to use my experience and be able to use the experiences I've learned just from others who have also have faced cancer, other friends that I've met just through the community to kind of help others and give them hope. The motivation aspect that it provided me, to want to go to medical school, to want to use this experience to motivate others and care for others in their own time of need, I think is what I really hold on to this day.

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