My cancer story started in December 2013, when I was 36 years old. I was raising my 11-year-old son, busy with nursing school and just weeks away from my wedding. I never thought the pain I first felt after a fall was a symptom of ependymoma, a type of spinal tumor.
My ependymoma symptoms and diagnosis
My journey started when I was getting out of the shower one day. I lost balance and fell hard right on my tailbone. I stayed on the floor for a couple minutes, trying to refocus myself.
Over the next couple of weeks, the pain intensified, and I finally went to the emergency room. The doctors suspected it was caused by a herniated disc. A couple of days later, the pain subsided, and life continued as usual.
But a few weeks later, not long after my wedding, the pain returned. My husband and I made four trips to the emergency room in one week. Each time, the pain intensified, but our questions remained unanswered.
When the pain became crippling and I could no longer move, my husband decided it was time to call a neurosurgeon. An EMS team had to take me to the appointment the following day. The neurosurgeon admitted me to the hospital and ordered an MRI, which showed a tumor between two vertebrae. A couple of hours later, I was undergoing surgery.
Coming to MD Anderson
The surgeon successfully removed the tumor, which the lab results suggested was a grade II ependymoma. My doctors said that I needed to start radiation therapy right away. Frustrated with all we had been through, my husband suggested we take my case to MD Anderson.
Living in nearby San Antonio, we were familiar with their reputation and experience. My new doctors ran some tests that indicated and reached a different diagnosis: I had a grade I myxopapillary ependymoma tumor. They said radiation therapy would not be necessary since the entire tumor had been removed. I was surprised to hear the new diagnosis, but mostly relieved I wouldn't have to undergo radiation. I really understood why getting a second opinion was so important.
Regaining my strength after spinal cord surgery
In the beginning, recovering from surgery was difficult. I am very active, and enduring pain while walking or using a walker was very hard for me. I couldn't do anything without help.
As a mother and a nurse, I'm used to being the caregiver, so being dependent on others was a challenge. I'm continuing to go to MD Anderson for my follow-up appointments. And I'm so grateful they understand what I'm going through.
I still have numbness, pain and tingling in my right leg. I know it's not nearly as bad as the pain I experienced before my surgery or the alternative of still having cancer, but emotionally, it's still difficult. People look at me and think everything is back to normal. It's hard to explain my condition to others.
My symptoms are not something others can see. But with the help of my husband, my son and my friends, I have become stronger.
From the beginning, I pushed myself to go just a little further every day, and I continue to do so. I took a break from nursing school to concentrate on getting well, but I will be finishing my last semester soon.
My advice for other cancer patients
My advice for others is to keep pushing. On the worst days, it will be bleak and dark, and you will wonder, "Why me?" or "Will this ever get better?" You may even grow tired of fighting. Take a moment and then push through. Be honest with others around you, and let them in.
It will be hard, but cancer will not define us. It is something that has plagued us, but it should be our goal to educate others and help people who share our diagnosis. I have learned so much from my ependymoma diagnosis. I've realized how important it is to get a second opinion on everything. I've realized that having a support system of family and friends will help you progress even though you won't realize it at the time. I also have learned how lucky I truly am. I may not be able to do everything that I used to do, but someday, I will be there again.