When Victoria Collins’ 14-year-old daughter Michelle was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, the world stood still for a minute.
“I couldn’t believe what I’d heard,” Victoria says. “The pediatrician said her blood counts were low and sent us to MD Anderson to find out why. We just thought Michelle was having a side effect from some of the medicine she was taking.”
But their daughter was admitted to the hospital with a fever, and tests revealed what was really going on: Michelle had acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).
Building a support system
After overcoming her initial shock, Victoria quickly began putting together a support system. She made sure a steady stream of friends came to visit her daughter regularly, and alternated between home and hospital duties with her husband.
She also stayed at the hospital with Michelle almost every night. “If I wasn’t there, my husband was,” Victoria says. “She was never alone.”
The trickiest part was balancing her attention between their two daughters. Her husband’s job required him to leave the house early, so their younger daughter, Natalie, was often at home alone. Natalie quickly learned to get up and ready in the mornings so she didn’t miss the carpool.
“I felt torn for sure,” Victoria says. “I wanted to be there more for Natalie, but it really was hard to leave the hospital. My husband and I switched off on weekends when she had dance competitions so I could go and help her. I liked being able to do that. And I talked and texted her every day and always said good night and good morning.”
Fighting to stay positive
Despite Victoria’s efforts to put on a brave face, sometimes her confidence faltered. She often wondered if her family — and her elder daughter — would survive. That doubt was magnified when Michelle suffered a serious complication from chemotherapy early on and had to undergo emergency surgery. She stayed in the inpatient unit at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital for 44 days afterward.
“We almost lost her at that point,” Victoria says. “It was touch and go. But MD Anderson is one of the few hospitals that offers white blood cell transfusions, and her doctors ordered them to kill the bacteria in Michelle’s stomach. The transfusions worked. They saved her life.”
When Michelle was discharged from the hospital, it felt like a small triumph to Victoria just to have her daughter back at home.
“It was a battle,” Victoria says. “I felt like we were all on the path to curing Michelle. Dr. Michael Rytting was wonderful, and just to get out of the hospital and to be at our own house was tremendous.”
The first night Victoria realized how different life would be as a caregiver to a cancer survivor versus the parent of an independent teenager. “She had a lot of medicine, and I was the nurse,” Victoria says. “So I did all the nightly calls and everything that the nurses had been doing in the hospital.”
Leaving the nest
Little by little, Michelle started getting stronger. And family routines became easier. Eventually, the Collinses settled into their new normal.
When Michelle was first discharged, she had a feeding tube. At night, Victoria had to prepare the food and get the pump set up. Michelle also had one type of chemo that required shots at home. “And she had so many medicines that I had to keep a tablet and a calendar to write everything down,” Victoria says.
Now, Michelle is 17 and poised to leave the nest. She finished her rigorous two-and-a-half-year ALL treatment plan in May and will start her senior year of high school this fall. She’s beginning to think seriously about colleges, and already has her eye on one that’s out of state.
“Yeah, I’m not too happy about that,” Victoria says with a laugh. “I don’t want her to leave.”
But Victoria is grateful for the fact that Michelle is able to do it.
“Michelle received the best treatment possible, and we are so thankful,” Victoria says. “People come from around the world to be treated here for a reason. If it weren’t for MD Anderson, we never would have seen our child soar and become the outstanding young woman she is today.”