Some of the most challenging moments in my life have been when I've faced the unknown.
I was 14 years old when I learned I had cancer, but the scariest feeling was before my diagnosis when I didn't know what was wrong. That uneasiness returned when I was diagnosed with cancer a second time nearly 25 years later.
Both times I found out about the cancer, I was relieved to have the physicians at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to help bring me clarity.
Prior to my first diagnosis at age 14, I experienced severe pain in my legs for a year. I visited several doctors, who had a variety of diagnoses for my aches: growing pains, arthritis and that I was faking it for attention.
I was in my local Ohio hospital when I found out that I would be transferred to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
After the first round of tests at St. Jude, doctors diagnosed me in Stage 4B, the last stage of Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the lymph system and affects the immune system. The pain I was experiencing for a year was caused because it had spread to my bones.
At the time, the standard protocol to treat Hodgkin's lymphoma was a combination of radiation therapy and two years of chemotherapy. The treatment had its ups and downs, but I distinctly remember the relief I felt knowing that I had a care team of physicians and nurses who could explain to me what was wrong and guide me through treatment. After the first chemotherapy treatment, the bone pain was gone. For me it was a miracle. After living for a year with excruciating pain, it was just gone.
After my cancer was treated, I enrolled in the St. Jude LIFE study, a research study that follows long-term childhood cancer survivors throughout their adult lives. Every year, I filled out an evaluation outlining detailed health and wellness questions. The evaluation, in addition to the patient newsletter I got after treatment, helped explain the potential late effects of the cancer treatment I received as a teenager.
Late effects are health problems that occur months or years after treatment has ended as a result of the delayed effects of chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgeries. For the type of radiation I received, it was important to maintain regular heart health checkups and other screenings.
In 2008, I was invited back to St. Jude for health screenings and a comprehensive medical examination to evaluate my health at the St. Jude LIFE clinic. The information gathered during these visits helps survivors learn more about individual health needs, and also gives St. Jude researchers insights into the late effects of cancer therapies.
Throughout my week-long visit in the LIFE clinic, I visited with physicians who specialize in monitoring late effects of childhood cancer in adults. By the end of the week, the clinicians found warning signs of breast cancer, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2009.
Ultimately, I was worried about the diagnosis, but there was peace of mind in knowing that the physicians spotted the cancer early in its progression, and that I was able to take the steps necessary to defeat cancer again.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital armed me with the tools necessary for my second battle with cancer, awareness and early detection. Since my treatment, I have been cancer free for nearly eight years and have been back to the St. Jude LIFE clinic to follow up. The physicians at the LIFE clinic recommended that I maintain a healthy diet, stay active and continue to consult with my doctor for regular health checkups and screenings.
I am grateful that St. Jude has helped me to live my life without fearing the unknown. I maintain an active lifestyle by playing tennis and walking. I've hiked to the summit of Pikes Peak, and I plan to do a section hike on the Appalachian Trail in the spring.
In my case, knowledge was power and the information the St. Jude LIFE clinic provided helped save my life for the second time. I'm thankful that St. Jude Children's Research Hospital cured my cancer when I was a teenager, but I'm equally appreciative that I was treated and prepared for life after cancer as well.
This blog post is part of an annual series produced by The Huffington Post and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in recognition of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, click here.