Cancer Patients

‘What Cancer Taught Me’

The following is the conclusion of the guest post from Jessica, cancer survivor and training manager at Diplomat. Read the beginning of her story here

 

Here we go again, I thought.

Cancer was in my neck, cheek and abdomen, but this time, it was also under my arm and in my groin area. Thankfully, it didn’t spread to my bone marrow. As routine, I went in for biopsies, but also to get a catheter put in instead of a port. Because of my rediagnosis, my oncologist told me I qualified to be part of a clinical trial. And because the cancer did not spread to my bone marrow, the trial included four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by about a week of high-dose chemotherapy to completely wipe out my bone marrow before I had a stem cell transplant.

I was a little frustrated I couldn’t be a normal teenager. The reins were put back on.

While my friends were at football games, basketball games and just hanging out doing what 16-year-olds do, I was again confined to the house, away from germs. Again, I faced the fact that I would lose my hair.

I even broke up with my boyfriend (the same boy I began seeing in eighth grade). I yelled at him out of frustration, saying, “I’m sick again, you can do whatever you want.” He didn’t consider us broken up. He still came by my house to sit with me and called me when I was in the hospital. But I wasn’t thinking about dating then; I was focused on my treatment ahead.

The prep began. I did four rounds of chemotherapy at the nearby hospital. After completion of my four rounds, I had to stay a couple months at a children’s hospital 70 miles away. I did not have to find a donor for my stem cell transplant; I was able to use my own. I spent five hours following the process to get my stem cells so they could be frozen and infused back in after I completed my week of high-dose chemotherapy. Stem cells were collected. Then there was the pep talk from the doctor about the next steps, including intense chemotherapy; this was going to be scary.

I was sedated for one week—the chemotherapy was that intense. It was strange; I was out, I couldn’t move, but I remember hearing people talking and knowing my parents were at my side. I don’t fully know what happened that week, but I do know that the day I started to wake up, my doctor told me the chemotherapy was complete and that they were going to give me my stem cell transplant.

A cooler with five or six huge syringes was brought into my room. One by one, they slowly pushed the cells through my catheter. It smelled funny, like garlic. I remember constantly coughing—a side effect of the transplant, I was told. Days later, the doctors had me slowly begin to get out bed and begin to walk around; I had to gain my strength back. After the transplant, I stayed in an apartment right by the hospital. I could not go back home, because I had to go to the doctor’s office every day for follow-up.

At the completion of my treatment and transplant, I was told I wouldn’t be able to have kids and that I could go through menopause as early as 20 years old. I remember hearing my parents talking about how they wouldn’t have any grandkids and about how it would affect me down the road.

 

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Cancer changed my perspective.

About a week later, the doctors let me go home (well, to the apartment next door, but it was out of the hospital, so I was happy). I was sent home with tons of medicine. It had to have been more than 10 drugs I had to take every day. Each day for a month, I had to walk next door for bloodwork. There were days my counts were too low and I had to have pints of blood transfused. I was even diagnosed with thrombocytopenia purpura, which led to several days of platelet transfusions.

At this point during my relapse, I learned that everything I went through was about attitude. I’d gone through a lot. I would go into the office, and the nurse would ask me, “How are you today?” I would say, “I’m fine,” with a smile on my face. It could be a day that I looked and felt like crap, numbers were horrible and I had to spend the day having transfusions, but I was still smiling.

I will never forget this: The nurse told me that no matter how I felt, when she came in I’d be smiling, and sometimes that’s what it’s about: your attitude. Sometimes, what can make or break patients is their attitude. I live by this to this day.

During my long stay away from home, I had my 17th birthday. It landed on Easter that year, and the doctors (and my parents) let me leave the apartment for a couple hours to spend Easter at my aunt’s house. I was doing well; I didn’t even have to wear a mask. That was a good day!

Then the day came when the doctors told me I could go home. It was near the end of May, so I didn’t finish my junior year. I did pass still, because I kept my grades high and the school worked with me while I was sick. I spent the summer recovering, regaining my strength and preparing for my senior year. Yes, I was going to be able to come back for my senior year! I could tell that I had grown. I was a little more confident. I wasn’t as nervous to go back to school as I was in eighth grade. My hair started growing back over the summer and was long enough for me to dye it red. I was ready!

With all that I’ve gone through, I wouldn’t change anything. My experience (though it might sound cliché), made me the person I am today.

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Jessica and her now-husband at their senior prom

I made it through chemotherapy, radiation, transfusions and a transplant. Every day, I face the possibility of secondary cancers and health issues caused by those life-saving treatments. I deal with a constant fear of “What if it comes back?” But I don’t do it alone. I have my family. I have my husband, the same boy who began dating me when I was a bald 13-year-old and refused to walk away when I fought cancer a second time. And I have my daughter and son—my miracle babies—who I obsessively check for enlarged lymph nodes when they complain of an ache or pain. They laugh because they don’t understand, but their dad says, “Just let your mom do what she needs to do. She’s not playing.”

 

Jessica's children—her "miracle babies"

Jessica’s children—her “miracle babies”

Through everything, cancer taught me:

  • Attitude matters. You can have the best of days and worst of days, but your attitude toward whatever it is makes or breaks any situation. I’ve gotten into the mindset early on (since I was first diagnosed) that there are things you can’t control, so you have to do what you have to do.
  • To look at the positive in everything. It could be worse. I remember when I used to stress over my hair when I was younger. I wanted to cut it. It was too thick. I wished my hair was like this or that. And then I was diagnosed and I lost it all. My hair grew back thin, and I get comments that “your hair is so thin” or “you’re getting greys already.” I just say it could be worse. I used to not have hair, so I’m grateful to have it. I look at everything on the positive end now. “It could be worse” or “better than the alternative.” At 30 years old, I still go to the same children’s hospital to see the doctor I saw when I was a teenager. They understand what I went through. They monitor my health because of the high-dose chemotherapy I had, the stem cell transplant and the cancer itself. They look for any late effects. They monitor my heart to make sure I don’t have any heart problems from the chemotherapy. I have hypothyroidism from the radiation to my neck years ago. I get checked a lot for thyroid cancer and other secondary cancers. I started getting mammograms when I was 18 because of all of the radiation. Thankfully, I don’t have any other late effects. I just take a pill for my hypothyroidism and keep up the monitoring.
  • I have a purpose. I have a story, I have a testimony, and because of what I went through, I can help someone else who is going through the same thing. After going through cancer, I knew I wanted to go into health care. I started school for physical therapy but moved to health care administration. I knew that even though I wasn’t working directly with the patient, I was working behind the scenes ultimately, with the patients’ goals in mind. Now, as a training manager at Diplomat, a specialty pharmacy, I can truly make a difference and help those who are working directly with the patients. I’m in a position to make changes and help people on the floor so they can do their job to get critical medications to patients. I’ve been able to speak to the pharmacy’s Oncology Department about my experience and run patient sensitivity courses. Hearing people say my story has touched them makes a difference to me.

 

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What has your journey with cancer taught you? Share your story at diplomat.is/listening or be part of the conversation on Facebook.

 

The information herein may not be construed as medical advice. The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. It should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. It is best to obtain medical recommendations from your physician.

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