On my 2 year anniversary date with my boyfriend, Logan Hickey, we were at the movies when I started shaking uncontrollably. Minutes later, I was getting sick in the bathroom of the movie theater. I pulled Logan out of the movies and continued to be ill for a couple of hours. The next morning, I felt a little better. I did not feel sick anymore, but did not have an appetite, which was upsetting because it was Thanksgiving. We just assumed I had food poisoning the night before. After I continued to have very little energy and appetite, aches, and a low grade fever, we thought it was the flu instead. I missed some school and work, but it was not until my stomach had become distended that we decided to go to the doctor. We even ignored the nosebleeds that I was getting because they were common for that time of the year. Blood work was ordered to rule out some things because my long list of symptoms seemed to have the doctors baffled. Later, they called with the strange results and said that we needed to go to Anderson Hospital for more testing. I was directly admitted, and they told me that they were going to run more blood work and do a CT of my abdomen the next morning. I was in my room with my mom when the doctor came in with a nurse who happened to be a close family friend of ours. The next few hours were the most heartbreaking moments of my life. They told us that they believed I either had leukemia or lymphoma and that I should be moved to Siteman Cancer Center. I will never forget the sound of my mom starting to cry or the sight of my dad falling to his knees by my bed with tears rolling down his face. I still cannot think about those moments without tears streaming down my face.
Family members came to my hospital room to wait with us for the ambulance to come take me to St. Louis, and by the time a room was ready, the one at Anderson was jammed full of my wonderful family, who were terrified, but they made sure I knew they were going to be there through it all with me.
The rest of that week is a pretty fuzzy memory. I had multiple blood and platelet infusions, bone marrow and lymph node biopsies, scans, a lumbar puncture, and a Hohn Catheter placed, and by that Thursday, December 12, 2013, I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Even though I was not treated at a children’s hospital, the type of cancer I had was typically a pediatric cancer, and my regimen is a pediatric regimen as well. My doctor walked in with my treatment plan, and I was not at all familiar with cancer and what was and was not normal, so I did not know what to expect, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a 2 1/2-3 year long plan. My plan was broken into 5 courses, the first being inpatient and the last 4 outpatient, and I knew that I was going to fight as hard as I could to beat this horrible disease.
The emotion of having Cancer did not register until a few weeks into my first course. I was starting to realize the effects of the chemo and how much it was going to affect my life when I went home. Because the chemo was attacking my blood cells specifically, my immune system was compromised, and I could not go into public regularly. If I did go into public, I had to wear a giant, teal surgeon’s mask to protect me from getting an infection. All the muscles in my body seemed to disappear in a couple of weeks too. Once I realized how weak I was and how isolated I had to be, my heart broke as I realized that I would not be able to go to work for a long time. Most people would probably have the opposite reaction, but I work as a gymnastics coach at the Edwardsville YMCA Meyer Center, and I absolutely love my job. It keeps me active, I have a blast, my co-workers are fantastic, but most importantly, I love working with the kids, especially the special needs children. I had become very close with those children and their families, and I did not emotionally break down until I realized that for the next year, I would see very little of the kids that meant so much to me. The determination to get back to them made me want to fight this Cancer even harder.
After spending 5 weeks in the hospital, I was sent home on January 13 and found out I was in remission. The next 8 months were filled with trips back to the hospital at least twice a week for treatment that would last most of the day. About 6 months into my treatment, one of the chemos caused nerve damage in my legs from my knees down. I had nerve pain so bad that I could not walk and partial paralysis in my left big toe. My brother, dad, and boyfriend all carried me up and down stairs when I needed. It was so strange being 18 years old, but not being able to do any of the things I should be able to do at that age.
It was frustrating to say the least, but I always knew it was important to stay positive throughout the process. To keep myself sane, I focused on the good things that came out of this challenge that God set for me because there were reasons God handed me this. I met incredible nurses, patients and other special people throughout this journey that I would not have met otherwise. My family is stronger than it ever has been. I have grown and changed for the better, and the best part is that I have been able to use this to find ways to help others that are going through it or will go through it.
I’m currently in my 5th course of treatment, which is all oral chemotherapy for me. That will last another year and a half, roughly, but this is the easy part of treatment compared to past parts. Slowly, I am gaining my strength, so I am back at work, enjoying the kids, finished my second semester of college, feeling and acting 19 instead of 90, and fundraising in any way I can. Things are gradually returning to normal, or the “new normal,” and I’ll continue my fight to keep my Cancer away with the help of God, my incredible oncology team, and my friends and family.