In May of 2006, I graduated college with my Master of Arts in Teaching. I was ready to get into the real world of teaching, move out on my own, and begin my new adult life. Little did I know, a month later, the future I had mapped out was about to take a huge turn.
Toward the end of college, I ran a lot for exercise. It was a good way to stay in shape and de-stress. By the end of my college career, my knee (so I thought) was bothering me enough that I had to quit running. I didn’t think much of it. I thought the worst it could be was fluid on my knee and I was going to have a huge needle stuck in my leg to drain it. I was more terrified of the thought of that needle going in me than anything else. In June of 2006, I was hired to teach 2nd grade. I was thrilled! I had already gone to some trainings and met my coworkers. It was going to be great! Then I noticed my “knee” was swelling and still hurting. I decided to go see an orthopedic doctor on June 21st, 2006 to check it out before I began teaching.
I went to the doctor and they x-rayed my leg. The doctor did not have a good look on his face and he said right then and there, “It could be cancer and you could lose your leg.” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I left the office with an appointment that day for an MRI, a prescription for crutches, and an appointment the next week to see an orthopedic oncologist 2 hours away. As soon as I walked outside, I lost it! I didn’t know what exactly “cancer” meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
The MRI showed a mass protruding from my left femur. So I’m thinking, “I’ll just have surgery and they will remove it and that will be that.” The next week, I went to the doctor. He was as blunt and harsh as ever, and there was no sugar coating! He looked at my MRI and without hesitation said it was osteosarcoma (bone cancer). He said I’d have to go through months of chemo and surgery and would be seeing him for the next 5 years. I remembered he asked me, “How much do you like your hair? Because you may want to go ahead and shave it and make a wig.” So I’m sitting there crying hysterically and thinking about how much I love my long hair and scared to death. I had a biopsy done that same day and the doctor’s diagnosis was correct. It was osteosarcoma.
We went back home in a daze and soon met with oncologists and sought out another surgeon for a second opinion. And fortunately, we were able to find a better surgeon (although 5 hours away instead of 2). However, I was afraid I may have to move to North Carolina for treatment. We talked with an oncologist in NC as well as two others at a hospital where we lived. I decided to be treated in pediatrics in my hometown (even though I was 23) because they knew more about this type of cancer (it tends to occur in children). Come to find out, the tumor was in my femur and the swelling was soft tissue tumor coming out of my bone (it was never my knee to begin with).
July 13th, 2006, only 3 weeks after the first doctor’s visit, began my journey and my lifelong fears of hospitals and needles were about to be faced head on! I had a double port put in my chest and my first round of chemo began that same day. I have NEVER been so sick in my life! After the first round, I found out that one of the chemo drugs had weakened my heart. That particular drug was stopped and I was put on heart medicine, which I may be on for the rest of my life. Exactly 2 weeks after my first treatment, I began losing my hair. I was in the hospital due to a fever. My hair was all over my pillow, falling out in large chunks. When I got home from this 8 day stay, I asked my mom to cut off the rest of my hair. Soon my head was as smooth as a baby’s – no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes. I never let anyone see me without a bandana or hat on my head. It was a sad, scary, and eye opening experience.
I will never forget the day that I was laying on the bed in clinic, too weak to even sit up. My counts were extremely low and I was feeling pretty awful. I did not know that my best friend was there to visit me. When she walked in, she too had a bandana on. She took the bandana off and my mouth dropped! She had shaved her head in hopes of helping me realize I was not in this alone. She showed incredible support and helped me when I was down. She refused to let me feel sorry for myself and insisted that I maintain some sort of normal life. I will never forget the compassion and love she showed me!
All of my treatments were inpatient for 3-6 days at a time. Luckily, I have the most amazing mom in the world, who never left my side, and family and friends who gave me more support and love than I could have ever asked for! From July to October I had 6 rounds of chemo. With this came every side effect possible…mouth sores, nausea, vomiting, back pain, headaches, blisters, sensitive skin, low blood and platelet counts, lack of appetite, 25 pound weight loss, you name it, I had it!
In North Carolina, on October 12th 2006, I had a massive 9 hour limb salvage surgery (what an awful name). I had about 6 inches of donor bone put in place of the damaged femur with 13 screws and many plates and pins holding it in place. I was in the hospital for 9 days and bed ridden for some of those. I had a huge brace on my leg that prevented me from bending my leg for about 6 months.
A few days after, I came back home from my surgery and had to start chemo again. Fortunately, the biopsy showed that 100% of my tumor cells were dead due to the chemo (this was really good!) but because I had had such bad side effects from the chemo previously, I had to stay on the “poor responders” track. One chemo drug was eliminated and 2 others were reduced. This led to extra chemo treatments. I remember counting down the treatments. When I could count the number left on one hand, I felt I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Before that, looking too far ahead was too overwhelming. I realized I had to take one day at a time.
My surgery has had such long-term effects on my life. I was in a straight cast for 6 months so now I can only bend my leg about 90 degrees due to scar tissue. I was also non-weight bearing for about a year and on a walker/crutches for 18 months! However, I am very grateful to have my leg! Today, I have a lot of discomfort in my leg and knee area, as well as 2 gigantic scars up my leg. But now the scars and discomfort are the least of my worries!
I completed treatment on June 4, 2007 after another 13 rounds of chemo (that makes 19 in all) with numerous admittances due to fever and low counts. However,…
Now I can say I am a 2 1/2 year survivor! Looking back, I see how blessed I was throughout my journey. I had, and still do have, an amazing support system and have met some of the best people along the way! I have made life-long friends and have had to say good-bye to others that didn’t make it. Being a survivor has taught me to never give up, to face my fears, and to look for courage even if I don’t think I have it. I’ve learned to believe in myself, be grateful, and realize things could always be worse. I feel I have more compassion and can definitely identify with others going through cancer treatments.
I still face ongoing scans, x-rays, and clinic visits and the fear that comes with each visit that it may come back. But now I am healthy and in my 2nd year of teaching kindergarten at a great school.
My name is Jessica. Today I am a survivor!