When I was ten years old, my entire world was turned upside by four little words, "Your child has cancer." Without having time to process this statement, I was thrust into an experience that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
My initial tumor was too big to be removed so the doctors were only able to biopsy it. The tumor had started in my right kidney and burst it, causing it to spread to other organs. After the results of my biopsy came back (Stage IV Wilms' Tumor), I immediately began chemotherapy in attempts to shrink the tumor so it could be operated on. Shortly after starting chemotherapy, I also began radiation. The combination of the two made me so sick I would vomit up to 16 times a day.
I received my diagnosis at the end of March, and I was in the hospital almost every day up until June. If I was fortunate enough to go home during that time, I would end up back in the hospital within 24 hours due to a fever. Once the tumor had finally shrunk enough for the doctors to operate, they were able to take out 90 percent of it. The other 10 percent was wrapped dangerously around my liver so it was decided we would try to shrink it with more chemo. My treatment was complicated when I developed a serious central line infection in October. I was so septic and sick that the doctors did emergency surgery in my bed to remove this line.
December came around and I had completed my chemotherapy regimen, but that 10 percent of my tumor still remained. The doctors explained to my parents that they were going to have to attempt to remove it, despite how risky it would be, because if they didn't, it would just start to spread again. My family got everyone we knew together to start praying and when I had my pre-surgery scans, the tumor had totally disappeared! I didn't need that dangerous operation and I haven't had a trace of cancer since then.
Not only does childhood cancer lack awareness, but I firmly believe that the after-effects of an experience like this lacks awareness as well. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change my experience for anything because it has made me into who I am today, but the path to getting there hasn't been an easy one.
Trying to adjust back into normal life after dealing with cancer was not fun for me. I got made fun of for being bald. People would come up to me and tell me I was in the wrong restroom and point me to the boys’ restroom. The friends I thought I had in school all treated me differently. Some felt sorry for me and the others didn't know how to act around me. I wasn't included in things anymore and I have never felt so alone in my life. I would come home from school in tears day after day. School started getting so bad for me that I begged my mom to let me go to a different school.
I loved basketball and had played my whole life, and also had a better opportunity to play in college if I went to this bigger school. I decided that with this new school, I wouldn't tell people about my cancer and I would just try to fit in. That didn't go well for me either because having cancer changed me. No matter how hard I tried to act like it never happened, I was left with physical, emotional and mental scars that were impossible to suppress. Trying to act like I was just like every other kid in school - when I clearly wasn't - still left me feeling so alone.
I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 15 from my radiation treatments and from there, it seemed like one late effect after another would pop up. As if going through cancer wasn't bad enough, now I'm having problems arise from the treatments used to get rid of the cancer. This put me over the edge and I ended up resentful and depressed. The worst part was that I didn't feel comfortable talking to anyone about it, so I kept it all in for many years.
I vowed that if I made it through this experience, I would go back and help other children going through the same thing, and that is exactly what I am doing today. I am so blessed to be a pediatric oncology nurse, where I get to use my experiences and story to help offer hope and positivity to other children and families going through the same thing I did.
It wasn't until I started working as a pediatric oncology nurse that I was really able to turn my mindset about my experience around. I went through what I went through so I can in turn help other people going through it.
Every bad thing that has happened to me as a result of having cancer when I was ten has molded me into the strong, independent, God-fearing woman that I am today. I am so thankful for every day that I'm alive. I'm so thankful for the people in my life and I make sure to tell them that constantly. I might live my life differently than the average person and that still makes it hard at times to fit in, but that's okay now. I find strength from my relationship with God, my family, these children that I am so blessed to take care of and from other survivors who have shared a similar journey as me.
Cancer really doesn't define you. It may be a huge part of your life and will always stay with you, but it really is how you choose to live your life after your experience that is what defines you. Do I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been had I not had to go through what I did? Absolutely!
But would I change anything about it now that I am where I am today? Absolutely not!
Although Melissa felt alone, her post-treatment challenges are experienced by many childhood cancer survivors. It is not unusual for childhood cancer survivors to suffer from isolation, anxiety, depression and even PTSD, sometimes many years after treatment ends. Kids diagnosed before age 10 – exactly Melissa’s age – had the highest risk of developing a mental disorder like anxiety or depression. In December 2015, the first national peer-reviewed standards for psychosocial care were published, marking a major step toward improving and standardizing the psychological and emotional care of children with cancer and their families.