Cancer also took the lives of both my parents: my mother died of lung cancer when I was 17, and my father died of colorectal cancer when I was 25.
You might think I’d be bitter today because of all that. But my parents always had really positive attitudes about things, so I’ve tried to do the same.
Why I feel lucky, despite my cancer diagnoses
It might sound strange, but the truth is, I actually feel kind of lucky. Between my first diagnosis as an infant and my second diagnosis as an adult, cancer granted me a 30-year reprieve. I was able to finish school, get married and even have a child — something I’d been told I’d never be able to do because of the radiation therapy I’d received as a baby.
I’ve also been a patient at MD Anderson, the best cancer hospital in the country, since 2001. And despite all the heartache that cancer has caused me, every diagnosis except the one I had as a baby has been treatable with surgery alone. That’s pretty amazing.
Life hasn’t always been glorious, of course. And I certainly wouldn’t wish my experiences on anyone else. But I do believe that happiness is a choice. So, I choose to live happily.
My road to MD Anderson
As an adult, my cancer troubles began when I started having heart palpitations. Nobody could figure out why. After many office visits, lab tests and scans, one doctor finally did: I had pheochromocytoma, a rare type of neuroendocrine tumor, on my right adrenal gland. I also had renal cell carcinoma again — on my only remaining kidney.
I fell to my knees at that moment. By then, I had a husband and a 7-year-old son. And I only had one kidney left. I knew at least part of it would have to be removed. So, I really didn’t know how I was going to survive.
My local doctor wanted to do a single surgery, but he wasn’t sure he could get all the cancer out. That’s why I decided to go to MD Anderson. Every doctor there is an expert in what they treat. So, the same surgeon who removes your colon isn’t also going to be removing your breast. They’re highly specialized.
My many cancer treatments
At MD Anderson, I met first with urologic oncologist Dr. Christopher Wood (now deceased). He was extremely confident, and said he felt certain he could remove both tumors successfully, if we did it in two separate operations. That sounded a lot better to me than one surgery with someone who wasn’t quite sure if he could do it. So, I placed my trust in Dr. Wood. He didn’t let me down.
Dr. Wood performed the first surgery successfully on April 4, 2002, and the second one on May 16, 2002. Both times, he was waiting for me in the recovery room when I woke up. Dr. Wood had such a wonderful bedside manner. After the first surgery, I remember him telling me, “Jennifer, we’re going to be friends for a long, long time.” And we were, right up until his death in late 2021.
I’ve had quite a few more surgeries at MD Anderson since Dr. Wood performed those on me in 2002. In 2007, Dr. Elizabeth Keeler removed my uterus to resolve an ongoing fibroid issue. In 2017, Dr. Matthew Katz removed a soft tissue sarcoma that was obstructing my small intestine. And, in 2018, Dr. Jeffrey Gershenwald removed melanomas from both my back and my right leg. That same year, Dr. Saira George removed spots of basal cell carcinoma from my hip and back.
Why I still feel grateful today
I only have half of one kidney left now. So, I can’t take ibuprofen, play football or practice karate. And I still have a mass on one ovary that’s scheduled to come out in April, plus a pretty good-sized goiter on my thyroid that will need to be removed eventually. But right now, I’m cancer-free. So, I’m grateful.
I’m also very proud of my son, Zachary. He’s 28 now, and a radiation therapist at MD Anderson. Zach was only in the second grade when I was diagnosed as an adult, but we were always honest and spoke in age-appropriate terms with him about whatever was going on.
We also tried to keep his life as normal as possible, so he could go to school just like any other day on the mornings when I had surgery. I think that’s why he wanted to study something related to cancer when he went to college.
While we didn't let cancer become a little dark cloud hanging over us, he couldn’t help but notice its effects on our family. I’m really proud that my experiences inspired Zach to help others.
I’m glad we were able to show him that people can live happy lives with cancer, even if it never really goes away. Because none of us gets through life unscathed. We might not be able to control what happens to us, but how we handle those things is entirely up to us.