My daughter Jacqueline is a six-and-a-half-year leukemia survivor and I’m a five-year colon cancer survivor. Jacqueline was three-and-a-half when she was diagnosed. The hardest thing was hearing all the side effects. I think the first side effect we saw with Jacqueline was lethargy. They’re getting so much chemo that all they want to do is lay down. They get depressed, because they’re not able to get up and get around. They get sick to their stomach, so they’re in the bathroom. The next side effect you’re gonna see is the hair loss. And that can be emotional. Another side effect was with the prednisone. They bloat up huge and get a yellowish tinge. That can be very difficult for a child who’s seeing themselves look like Miss Piggy. There was also diarrhea, and dehydration that happened along with it all.
One of the main ones is the effect on cognitive learning. Almost every child goes through that, because the chemo does go into the cerebellum and the kids are affected. Jacqueline’s been diagnosed with ADHD, but she’s done very, very well in school, but you can tell there are certain aspects of it that probably have affected her ability to read, even though she’s compensated for that pretty well. Most kids that have gone through it have a learning disability, and some have a speech impediment. Some of Jacqueline’s side effects don’t even emerge for 18 years, which is kind of a scary thought. We won’t know about sterilization for a while. The secondary cancers, you won’t know about for a while. There are a lot of people that’ll go ten years and then have a relapse. So it’s just kind of one of those things that’s always going to be on your mind, even though we hope we’re beyond the worst of it.
It was September when my husband and I found out I was pregnant, even though we’d used birth control to prevent it. Not because we didn’t want a third child, just because it was not the right time for it. When we found out, we had to go through the normal blood test. About a month after I knew I was pregnant I found out I had colon cancer, and after a colonoscopy, they found out that it was in the third stage it had gone through the wall of my colon and was heading toward my liver. At that point, the doctors said that my pregnancy, without a doubt, saved my life. Without the diagnosis at that point, it would have been too late to do anything about it.
I remember the most difficult time throughout my ordeal with the colon cancer and being pregnant was all the opinions from the doctors, some saying to abort to save your own life, some saying “You can do it, you just have to do a different protocol,” some saying, “If you delay it, it’s gonna decrease your chances of survival by 20%.” We decided to try to save us both. The most difficult decision was trying to save my life knowing it could harm the baby. I remember being in a Kroger parking lot just crying my eyes out and praying to God. I couldn’t believe I was going to be doing this to my unborn child. I’m going to expose her. I’m not even a religious person but I remember at the time, I just felt this incredible warmth over me that everything was going to be okay. I was forgiven and He was going to take care of me. From that moment on, I think faith carried me through. I was able to have the strength and the faith that everything was going to be okay.
With colon cancer the good thing is the chances of it reoccurring are less than, say, breast cancer. But they don’t have as many drugs to cure you on the front end. And probably that was good in my sake, because if I had breast cancer, I would not have been able to keep the child. But because I had colon cancer and they didn’t have the drugs to cure me as well, and the drugs weren’t as intrusive to the baby. So in a way there was a nice give and take there. Since I’m five years out, I feel pretty secure that it’s not going to reoccur. But unfortunately, like today, before I came here, I had to get a mammogram, and I’ll have to do that every year. I’ve had to do that every year since I was 35. I have to get CAT scans, and I have to get blood work and have to go down to the oncologist every six months just to make sure. I have a greater chance of getting a secondary cancer than colon cancer. So they’re always watching for a secondary cancer.
At the time, we probably had a thousand letters coming from people we didn’t even know from across the country. Somebody from our church would have contacted them and we’d get a letter. We probably had a million dinners done for us, either coming from our church or from our neighborhood. I don’t think I cooked once in two years. I probably did not do support groups because I didn’t want to talk about it. But I really had a happy life. I have a great husband, children, and I try to focus on them and doing the normal things in life. For the most part, I just needed to keep life very normal with the kids and keep the routine going as much as I could. I think that helped Jacqueline as well through hers.
When I got diagnosed, my son was too young to understand. We were able to tell him that there were gonna be some times that Mommy needed to rest. That she was a little sick. We had somebody else come in and take care of him for like 20 hours a week, especially right after I had chemo, because we did mine once a week. And on that day and the next day, I was wiped. Since then, we’ve explained it to him. Jacqueline, our daughter, had a different perspective. She would ask, “Are you gonna die?” She knew about cancer. The response was, “We’re doing everything we can, so that doesn’t happen. I have no intention of dying. But I’m going to be tired. And I’m gonna do the best I can to still be your mom throughout the whole thing, but I may a little bit of help around the house if I’m getting a little tired.”
We put it out there, and you always kind of ask, “Do you want to talk about it?” And you’ve got to be honest with them. Don’t scare them, but you have to be honest with them. And thank goodness in our situation, we were never at the point to have to say anything real negative. Everything seemed to work okay. The chemo was working with me. The chemo was working with Jacqueline. So we never had to get to a point of being negative and preparing them for the worst.
I think the key is to have contacts you can talk to. Find somebody who is two or three months ahead of you, that can really guide you through Find that person you can talk to who knows something about it, that you can talk to about the side effects you’re going through or the feelings that you’re having, because that person has had them as well. Also, keep your life normal and your child’s life normal. As much as you want to shield that child from every germ in the world, you’re gonna be harming the child by keeping them inside and away from their peers and a normal life.
I felt like after going through it, I had to prove something to myself and started training for a triathlon. I did one about two years ago. I think the cancer had a lot to do with that. I had to prove that I could come back. It was probably the healthiest I was. Just because I had cancer doesn’t mean it was gonna control my life. Then my husband started doing marathons for leukemia and raising money, and that’s what I did, too. I raised $50,000 for leukemia and did the triathlon.
Survivorship to me means an opportunity, because I know now that life is precious. It could reoccur in me at any moment. It could reoccur in Jacqueline any moment. But I think it can be an opportunity to give back, first of all, to those people that are going through it, and second of all, just an opportunity to live life to the fullest. Take advantage of what you’ve been through. Don’t wallow in self pity for what you’ve been through. Just take advantage and do those things that you’ve always wanted to do. Don’t put them off. Do them now. Especially if you have kids, do them with the kids.
My name is Laura Tate. My daughter and I are cancer survivors.