January 17, 2017
Family first after my non-Hodgkin b-cell lymphoma diagnosis
BY Stephanie Howard
When I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma in August 2015, my main concern was for my family. What was I going to tell my family? And how were my children going to take the news?
My husband and I told our children, Stella (11) and Joshua (8), on a Tuesday evening. We tried to be very honest and transparent. We talked about how things would change and how they could help.
My support network during B-cell lymphoma treatment
Even though my focus remained on my illness and treatment, I still worried about the kids after our initial conversation. School was about to start, so we met with the principal, school counselor and the kids’ teachers.
The counselor told us about a non-profit organization that helps children whose parents have life-threatening illnesses. We wanted to make sure our kids got the best support available, so we looked into it. Just knowing that there were people focused on them was such a blessing.
Chemotherapy close to home
After my initial B-cell lymphoma diagnosis, I met with Jason Westin, M.D., at MD Anderson for a second opinion. He told me that he would recommend the same chemotherapy regimen that my Austin-based oncologist had — “R-EPOCH.”
As he put it, “If they’re going to do the same thing in Austin, you might as well do it there and be close to your family and friends, your support network.” My husband and I decided that I’d receive chemotherapy in Austin.
A different decision
When my B-cell lymphoma returned in April 2016, I sought a second opinion at MD Anderson. This time, Dr. Westin recommended a different chemotherapy cocktail than my Austin oncologist (“R-DHAP” instead of “RICE”), as well as radiation to accompany the autologous stem cell transplant they both wanted me to have.
I only have one life, so this really was a no-brainer. Given my doctors’ knowledge and experience, I felt more comfortable receiving treatment at MD Anderson.
That decision meant a lot of upheaval in our house, though. Who would take care of the children? How would my daughter handle the start of middle school without me at home?
Focusing on my family’s priorities
We spent the rest of the summer at my in-laws’ house in Houston. My dad and stepmom drove in from Michigan to stay with the kids right before school started. It was very stressful, but I was grateful for the help.
I was getting my stem cells harvested for an autologous stem cell transplant when Dr. Partow Kebriaei’s nurse gave me the best news: once I was finished with apheresis, I could go home for four days — one of which was the first day of school. Dr. Kebriaei knew how important it was for me to see my son off to fourth grade and my daughter off to sixth grade, so her thoughtfulness meant a lot.
Remembering why I came to MD Anderson
My autologous stem cell transplant took place on Sept. 7, 2016, and I was discharged on September 21. Two weeks later, I was cleared to go home. I was super excited, but my enthusiasm dimmed a bit when I learned that I needed to be back in Houston a week later to start radiation.
Again, I had to remind myself why I came to MD Anderson: because I have a beautiful family, and I want to watch my babies grow up and have babies of their own. So I started treatment under Bouthaina Dabaja, M.D., and over the next four and a half weeks, we really got to know each other. We built such a special bond that she came down to watch me ring the bell to mark the end of my radiation treatment. That was a moment I’ll never forget.
My ‘forever family’ expands
Today, I remain cancer-free. Family is still my focus, but its definition is broader. Now, it includes all of my MD Anderson doctors and inpatient nurses. They carried me when I couldn’t carry myself. They walked me through the halls so I could get exercise, encouraged me when I was down and got to know me. I was much more than just a patient to them, and they are much more than just doctors and nurses to me now. They are part of my forever family.
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Family is still my focus, but its definition is broader. Now, it includes all of my MD Anderson doctors and inpatient nurses.