By Guest Writer - October 23, 2020
Prior to entering high school, I was a normal tween; involved in sports and a good student. At the end of eighth grade, I noticed some knee pain that I assumed was from overuse given I was on my school’s volleyball team and cheerleading squad. I saw my pediatrician who said I just needed to rest and take it easy. It was a few weeks before my first day of high school when my life turned upside down.
I had attended a couple conditioning sessions for the high school volleyball team and my knee was hurting more than it ever had, so we went to get an x-ray. The doctor mentioned the word ‘tumor’ and I went from worrying about volleyball tryouts and finding my classes to worrying about cancer. I remember this appointment like it was yesterday. The orthopedic doctor sent us downstairs to a surgeon. My parents called our family, and everyone started showing up to sit in the waiting room. I remember my parents hugging me as tight as possible while I cried. My friends were planning who they were going to sit with at lunch and I was scheduling a biopsy. A few days later we heard the news we were praying not to get. I had osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. As a family, we decided we were going to focus on what we needed to do to get through it. I decided cancer would not control my life.
My first week of school started on a Wednesday, my port placement surgery was on Friday and I started chemotherapy the following Monday. I learned very quickly that this battle would be no walk in the park; starting with it taking ten tries to access my port. Another patient, a girl around my age, was admitted about a week after me and coincidentally also had osteosarcoma. We were fast friends and the nurses knew to put us in rooms near each other so our families could hang out. Our friendship helped us get through some difficult times because we understood how the other felt.
I underwent six months of chemotherapy, a full knee and tibia replacement to remove the tumor and seven more months of chemo. The journey was difficult, and complications arose throughout the process. I found out about medication allergies the hard way; accessing my port was always difficult and I developed a lot of anxiety. The chemotherapy began to take a toll and I switched to hospital homebound schooling full time. I was in love with the University of Florida and my focus on applying there kept me motivated to keep up with schoolwork even though I did not feel well most days. I constantly told my nurses that I would do whatever I had to do to beat the disease because I had things to do, places to go and patients to treat one day.
After about a year in remission, I noticed some random, unexplainable bruising on my legs. I went in for lab work expecting I just needed a platelet transfusion. Our hearts dropped when we heard the news that I had likely developed a secondary cancer. A bone marrow aspirate confirmed I had myelodysplastic syndrome that had progressed to acute myeloid leukemia. It developed as a side effect from one of the chemotherapies that was used to treat my osteosarcoma, which only affects about 2% of patients.
I remember thinking there was no way this could be happening again. Wasn’t one cancer enough? I had just started to feel like a normal teenager again. How crazy is it that chemotherapy can do so much good while also causing other bad things to happen? What had I done to deserve this? Regardless, I cowboyed up and went into treatment with the mindset that I beat it once and I could do it again. Satan couldn’t get rid of me that easy.
This time I would receive conditioning chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, none of my three siblings were a match and at first our best unrelated donor only matched eight out of 10 markers. My leukemia blast percentage was in the forties and my doctor did not want to waste any time. While undergoing surgery to place a central venous line, doctors did another bone aspirate to check on my numbers and get a new baseline. I remember the disbelief in my pediatrician’s voice when she came to tell me that the pathology showed my percentage of leukemia blasts was lower than the initial test. This bought us time and I was able to go home for Christmas.
Around the holiday, we received a call with the wonderful news that a perfect match from an unrelated donor was found in Germany! This was a huge blessing because finding an unrelated perfect match is not common. God was looking out for me, as always, and I knew that everything would work out. For the most part my treatment went smoothly. I even took my SAT in the hospital 14 days after my transplant, a time my doctors thought I would not be feeling well. Again, I told them, ‘I have things to do and the world around you doesn’t stop because you have cancer.’ I eventually went back to school in time for the important senior festivities. I attended senior field day and went to prom. I was even crowned prom queen. I was back on track and ready to move on to attend my dream school, the University of Florida. Go Gators!
Because of my cancer experiences, I joined a club called Footprints which gave me the opportunity to volunteer on the pediatric oncology floor at a hospital in Gainesville. I was able to pay it forward by working with children in similar situations to mine. My shift was always my favorite part of the week and I felt like I made a difference in each patient's life. I worked towards applying for medical school and finally got back to having a normal social life. I felt like I was on the upswing and excited for what would come next in life.
At the beginning of my last semester, I discovered an abnormal lump in my breast. Of course, I feared the worst because I had been in this situation before and it had not gone as I had hoped. I was glad that I always paid attention to my body and was quick to get things checked out right away. Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2020, but luckily we caught it early. I could not understand why this was happening yet again. Was this going to be my life now? In remission for a couple of years, getting back on track with life and then boom, another cancer. When would this happen again? Five years from now?
As I was working through all of this, I was studying to take my MCAT, applying to medical school and working to get a research position at All Children’s Hospital. Lots of stress, right? Like always, I leaned on my family and faith in God for support. I knew I would beat cancer again and move on to become a doctor. Something good would come from this and I would be an even stronger person.
Due to the pandemic, I had a lumpectomy first since elective surgeries were postponed, followed by four rounds of chemo and finally a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction in September. This treatment process was very different from what I was used to. I went in for two hours of same-day outpatient treatment instead of staying in the hospital for a few days. Due to COVID-19, I was not allowed to have anyone with me for treatment, which was very nerve wracking. But Moffitt Cancer Center took good care of me and the nurses in the infusion clinic were very friendly, keeping me company when they could. Just like before, I pulled myself together and faced everything head on. I am now cancer free!
I have learned a lot from my cancer journey. One of the biggest lessons is that there is always hope. It is unfortunate that I have had cancer three times and that it kept me from doing things at times, but I’ve still been able to have a lot of great experiences. I attended every home football game at the University of Florida with my fellow Gators. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree and was part of a great volunteer organization that made a difference in the community. Sharing my story with other patients and their families allows me to give them hope that there is life after cancer. Medicine helps your body get better but hope and faith give your soul something to fight for.
I am thankful that I listen to my body and go to the doctor when something doesn’t seem right. My tenacity and desire to follow my doctor’s every instruction has helped me through my journey and I would advise any patient to do the same. I still plan to attend medical school so I can go on to help others. As a physician I will be able to treat patients, but cancer has allowed me to touch other’s lives and fulfill my calling to help people in a different way. Life will always have hardships, but it’s important to focus on the good that can come out of situations. I want to give others hope that they can beat anything they are faced with and still accomplish their dreams.
This article was written by Bailey Rhodes, three-time cancer survivor.