July 17, 2019
Why I chose faith over fear after a late Ewing’s sarcoma recurrence
BY Erica Nowell
As a nurse practitioner at MD Anderson, I’d heard of case studies where Ewing’s sarcoma survivors had seen their cancer return, even way past the 10-year mark. I never thought it would happen to me.
But in January 2019, after 13 years of being cancer-free, I suffered a relapse.
At first, I found the news pretty demoralizing. I’d just given birth to my third child, and I worried about how I’d manage my treatment, while still being a mother to my three girls.
Now that I’ve started chemotherapy again, I’ve had time to reflect on the many blessings in my life. And that has allowed me to choose faith over fear as I walk down this road again.
My Ewing’s sarcoma relapse
I might not have even discovered the relapse if it hadn’t been for my third daughter. I’d started experiencing severe back pain a few weeks before her due date. I attributed it to “back labor,” a very common phenomenon in late pregnancy.
When the pain didn’t resolve within five days of giving birth, I went to a local emergency room. The attending physician there didn’t even do a scan, because he said I had “textbook” pyelonephritis, a type of kidney inflammation due to a bacterial infection. He prescribed antibiotics and sent me home.
I finished the antibiotics a few weeks later, but the pain didn’t let up. My obstetrician ordered an ultrasound of my pelvis and kidneys. That revealed a blood clot in my inferior vena cava, which earned me a trip straight back to the emergency room. The doctor there ordered a CT scan, and that’s when we discovered the large mass in my abdomen. The Ewing’s sarcoma had returned.
Ewing’s sarcoma treatment at MD Anderson, the second time around
Since I was already both a patient and an employee of MD Anderson, there was no question about where I’d go for my sarcoma treatment.
I met with Dr. Robert Benjamin (now mostly retired) again in the Sarcoma Center. He laid out our plan: 18 rounds of chemotherapy (doxorubicin, ifosfamide and vincristine) followed by radiation therapy and possibly surgery.
It’s a little surreal to be back under Dr. Benjamin’s care again, especially after actually working beside him in the Sarcoma Center. But so far, it’s been going pretty well. I started chemotherapy on May 1 and am now on round four. It’s a little easier this time around, just because I know what to expect and what to watch out for, both as a patient and a caregiver.
It’s harder because I’m in a different stage of life than I was before. I was only 17 when I was diagnosed the first time, so I just had myself to worry about back then, and now I have three children.
The best thing about my current situation might be that there are so many more options to control side effects. Nausea medications, in particular, have come a long way. We’ve had to try a lot of different things to manage mine — but they’re working now, so I’m happy.
Counting my blessings after a Ewing’s sarcoma relapse
Every time I count my blessings, I start with the fact that I work at MD Anderson. My colleagues here are amazing: they’ve donated more than 300 hours of sick leave to me, so I won’t have to return to work until July 22. And after I finish chemotherapy, I can receive radiation therapy right down the hall from where I see patients at MD Anderson West Houston. That location is also super close to my home.
Being a patient at MD Anderson has been another blessing. While the ER near my home showed the cancer had already spread to my spleen and lungs, the scans performed here by my own doctor showed it was limited to my abdomen.
My tumor is responding beautifully to chemotherapy, too, so I’m very excited and very hopeful. It’s going to be a long year, but my doctor has a plan. And I am 99% confident that this is just another roadblock in my life.
Once I’m done with treatment, I can get back to being a full-time nurse practitioner, caring for other cancer patients. I can hardly wait.
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I’m very excited and very hopeful.