Even now, the “big-ass scar” as Hansel Aquino describes it, is a reminder.
Running from his left knee to his groin, it’s a reminder that life wasn’t always this grand. But the scar is also more than that. It’s a physical souvenir from a time when Aquino’s life itself was was very much in doubt.
That’s hard to believe when you see Aquino today. He’s the picture of vitality, a 21st-century renaissance man. Aquino is an actor, a social media celebrity, a mixed martial artist, and — this explains the scar — a survivor of epithelioid sarcoma, a rare form of soft-tissue cancer.
Aquino was training for his dream career as an MMA fighter when, after a nightmarish medical saga, he was finally properly diagnosed. What followed was a tenacious fight against the disease, then his first actual MMA fight, a match with an epic ending worthy of the silver screen.
Along this journey, Aquino discovered something else, too.
The kid raised in a strict Catholic family where cannabis was taboo evolved from a cannabis teetotaler into a true beneficiary of the plant’s medicinal benefits. That’s how the modern jack-of-all-trades added another line to his resume: Cannabis evangelist.
“No offense to Cheech and Chong, because I love Cheech and Chong, but those are the only examples of cannabis users I would see — not athletes or people living healthy lifestyles like I’m living,” Aquino tells Eaze. “I like to take away that stigma.”
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Aquino’s story is at times terrifying, inspiring, and amazing. After hearing his tale, it’s hard to argue with anything the man says.
Growing up in Hollywood, Aquino wrestled and played football. He also had a habit of getting into fights at school — fights with class bullies, that is.
“I knew I shouldn’t take people on, but I would always get mad when I’d see kids pick on other kids, so I would step in,” Aquino, now 26 years old, recalls.
Mixed martial arts were a natural fit for the young athlete. By his senior year of high school, Aquino was training seriously with dreams of landing his first official, sanctioned fight. That’s when he noticed a painful boil on his left inner thigh. Some months later, after graduation, more sores popped up in the same area. Aquino visited his doctor, who said he was suffering from carbuncles, a painful but not overly serious skin malady.
Aquino was given cream to treat the sores, but they didn’t improve. Meanwhile, he kept up his MMA training despite what he calls “to this day, the most painful pain ever.” He could hardly sit, and had to wear loose clothes. But he gritted his way through training nonetheless.
Then, about six months after that first boil appeared, the sores on his leg “erupted.”
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Out of two million people only one lucky person will get my cancer "EpitheliodSarcoma" that's how rare my cancer is, estimated time of living when getting diagnosed is 3 months to 5 years you can go to sleep and not ever wake. As I sit in this hospital bed and writing this on this Saturday. I think to my self it's been a long road and it's been a road that I've been truly honored and grateful to drive in at such a young age.This is my destiny this is why I was born this is the meaning of my life yes it may sound crazy but I'm glad I live the life I live because I get to give hope and inspire not only cancer warriors but anyone who needs it with my story. I made it a mission in life to go to hospitals to visit and share my story to explain to cancer warriors that in a bad situation like mine there's always a positive out come that we didn't get diagnosed with cancer cancer got diagnosed with us. Is my death near? Is it right now? Will I wake up tomorrow or the next day? I don't know and I actually don't give a damn because I am happy I'm doing what I love to do I have the support of my family and all of you guys have believed in me since day one thank you❤️. So till then I will fight because I was born a fighter I will fight till the last breath in my body and if my body fails then my mind will win me the fight. Now remember my friends never give up never lose faith don't listen to anyone but yourself keep going forward with all you got no matter how bad the situation is keep fighting till your satisfied you have given it your all it's not what they take away from you that counts it's what you do with what you have left now go out there do the impossible and achieve your dreams😊If something were to ever happen to me, I will have no worries because I was privilege enough to give hope to many people saved life's with my story and of the memories and moments that my cancer warriors and you guys have given me. Thank you cancer for making me fearless to anything even death and making my life much better love you❤️👊💢💢 #picoftheday #chla#cancer#cancersurvivor#fight#fighter#nevergiveup#nothingisimpossible#cancerwarrior#love#hope#hanselsstory#goingtobehereallday
“It just looked like something eating my skin,” Aquino says. This time, his doctor blamed over-training, and gave him new medicine. Through all this, Aquino kept going to the gym for workouts and sparring sessions — even when he had to bind his thigh in Saran Wrap to prevent his sores from oozing.
Another six months passed. Aquino went back and forth with his doctor, pleading for another diagnosis. Finally, fed up during one visit, Aquino says he put his foot down, demanded a biopsy, and told the doctor, “This [thing] is not what you’re telling me it is.”
It was so much worse. The biopsy results were brutal: Cancer of the soft-issue in Aquino’s left thigh. His doctors, he says, recommended amputation. Unable to accept a life without sports and full mobility – and still determined to have at least one official MMA fight – Aquino refused.
He was able to find a different doctor who offered an alternative course of treatment: They’d only remove a section of his left thigh, including several muscles, instead of amputating the entire limb. But the compromise came with a stern warning: Athletics, as he’d known them, were over.
After being injected with anesthetic, Aquino lost consciousness while hugging his mom, both of them in tears.
What happened next is the stuff of Hollywood.
When he woke up after the operation, Aquino says he immediately began moving his leg. First a little bit, then more. Everyone in the room — doctors, family members — was shocked. Again, Aquino began to cry. But this time he shed tears of happiness.
So how does Aquino explain the seemingly miraculous recovery from an operation doctors said would never again leave him fully whole?
“I believe in God, I pray all the time,” he says. “I came in with no doubts in my mind that I was gonna be able to move my leg again, no matter what. I saw it as an opponent, pretty much, and the brain is a powerful thing.”
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Thank you @childrensla for having me come by today to visit some awesome cancer warriors. It's always an honor to share my cancer story to give them hope❤️ Plus I met this beautiful little princess we had a blast playing and taking pictures😍 If any of you have any questions on volunteering or wanna come with me next time feel free to text me or hit me up on here😊 Glad I was diagnosed with cancer because it led me to my main mission in life and it brought me to them everything happens for a reason thank you cancer you only made my life better😊❤️🙌🙏👊💢💢💢#picoftheday#fighter#fighters#fight#cancer#cancersurvivor#warriors#love#chla#thirdthursday#beautiful#princess#fun#priceless#hope#faith#nevergiveup#myheroes#volunteer#la#hollywood#lovethem#comejoinme#thankyoucancer
When Halloween soon arrived, the teenage Aquino found a new mission. He was housed in Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, alongside other cancer patients several years younger than him. That night, he began visiting his hospital neighbors to say hi and hand out extra candy. He quickly went from giving away sweets to giving impromptu pep-talks in hopes of boosting his fellow patients with an added dose of optimism.
“It hit me then: I think this is what I want to do with my life, is talk about my story,” Aquino says. “I think it was meant to be for me to get this cancer, and to beat it and to talk to kids and give people hope. That night showed me I have a big power in me. It hit me in the heart that this was now my main mission in life.”
“Cannabis is a beautiful medicine.”
Meanwhile, even while slogging through post-surgery physical therapy and radiation treatment, Aquino resumed his MMA training with just as much vigor as before the operation. He was also introduced during this time to the healing properties of CBD, and started using cannabis topicals as part of his training recovery. Eventually, he also moved on to smoking THC, despite initial hesitation resulting from his strict Catholic upbringing.
It was, to be sure, a time of growth, gratitude, and expansion. Then Aquino’s coach came to him with the next chapter in his amazing story: An official, sanctioned MMA fight had been secured for the former cancer patient in Las Vegas.
Just two years after being diagnosed with a rare disease that threatened his life and mobility, Aquino was a bonafide MMA fighter.
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Just had my annual cancer check up my doctor told me some amazing news I am CANCER free that’s 7 years being cancer free thank the lord🙏🏻 it’s not what they take away from you that counts it’s what you do with what you have left so go out there and achieve everything you want to achieve anything is possible love you guys thanks for all the support❤️ I’m not going anywhere till I achieve what I have to complete👊🏼
His story still had one more incredible twist.
After walking out to Johnny Cash’s rendition of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” at the South Point hotel and casino in Las Vegas in July 2012, Aquino says the gravity of the moment fully hit him. He was doing what he’d dreamed of for years — and after completing an unlikely comeback from a deadly disease.
“I wanted to cry in the cage because I was so happy,” he says. “I’m like, ‘I did it, man. I did it. I’m right here. I’m about to fight.'”
The fight didn’t last long.
After touching gloves with his taller opponent, Aquino dodged a left straight and countered with a mean right hook that dropped the other fighter immediately. Aquino pounced without hesitation, raining blows around his opponent’s head until the ref called the fight.
He’d scored a knockout in under 10 seconds.
Victorious in the ring after beating cancer — that’s where Aquino’s Hollywood biopic would probably fade to black. But he’s hardly slowed down since.
Aquino’s acting career appears set to take off after landing a deal with a major online production company whose name can’t yet be publicly revealed. He hopes to get back in the MMA cage next year following his only official fight in 2012. On Instagram, his unique combination of comedic skits and MMA tutorials have attracted some 120,000 followers.
And the affinity for cannabis that Aquino first discovered during his cancer recovery has led to partnerships with brands including Eaze, VapeExhale, and Cannabliss Retreats.
“Cannabis is a beautiful medicine,” says the 21st-century renaissance man, who enjoys indicas that supercharge his sleep and sativas that don’t interfere with MMA training. “I want to take away the stigma.”
But more than anything, Aquino hopes to function as a walking, talking (and cannabis-enjoying) beacon of optimism for anyone facing adversity.
“I want people to see my story and get hope,” he says. “I want them to see me as an example that, no matter what situation you’re in, you can still go out there and achieve those dreams that you have. Even if death is staring you in the fucking face, you can still do it. Nothing is impossible.”