“I was 15 years old on the day my femur broke in my dance class. The femur is the biggest bone in the human body, and I snapped mine in half doing a pirouette! While everyone tried to help me up off the dance floor, I knew this was more than just a ‘quick fall and get back up again’ kinda thing. Soon after, I was in an ambulance headed to the hospital to figure out what happened.
I was so scared, in a lot of pain, and all I could really think about was how bumpy the drive was to the hospital. Each crack we drove over had the broken ends of my femur rubbing against each other in the most grueling way. We finally made it to the hospital, where I got settled into a room with a fuzzy Eyore blanket and chose to watch Cinderella while we waited for the next step.
Not long after I got to the hospital, I was taken to Radiology to have x-rays taken. There was not enough pain medicine in the world to numb the amount of pain I was in. The techs were moving and adjusting me on the table so they could get a clear image of the break. There were multiple nurses and techs there trying to support me the best they could, but I am certain they were not the only ones in the hospital who could hear my pain.
Once I made it back to the ER, I was offered more medicine, and I started to lull off to sleep. What I didn’t know at the time was I was about to meet one of the most important people in my life. It is a blurry haze, but I faintly remember being introduced to a tall lanky man with a bow tie and a kind smile. He let us know, ‘I was paged in to take a look at your images.’ The man introduced himself as Dr. Jones and said, ‘We will be seeing quite a bit of each other in the near future.’ Dr. Jones was able to spot a tumor that had taken over my entire femur. We were confused because I had seen a few doctors throughout the year to take imaging of my leg due to the amount of constant pain I was in, but they had all concluded it was ‘growing pains.’
Dr. Jones let us know, ‘You are going to go into surgery to realign your femur and to take a biopsy of the bone so I can determine whether the tumor is benign or not.’ That night, I had the first of many surgeries to come. They went in to take out a piece of the bone and put in a plate to hold together my femur so it could grow back together. Before we even got any results back, we met Dr. Wright. Everything’s so blurry about those first couple of days, but I vividly remember my mom being very upset to meet Dr. Wright since she was an oncologist and we had not yet determined whether or not we needed to work with her. My mom was not done praying and manifesting my good results, and I think she felt like it was too soon to even consider the ‘C-word.’
The next few days were filled with visits from my friends and receiving multiple flower and gift basket deliveries. I remember it being a really joyful time despite it also being the scariest time of my life. As a 15-year-old, I really did love all the attention and love I was receiving from my family and peers. There was a time I had almost 15 people in my hospital room, and when my nurse came in to take my vitals she said, ‘You are so loved! We can hear you all from down the hall!’ When it was time for physical therapy and learning how to walk with crutches, all of my friends came with me on a walk down the hallway, it was kind of a parade of support. I knew I could really conquer anything with all those hands having my back.
The results came back and I was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. I was finally discharged from the hospital to go home to collect my things and mentally prepare for the next part of my journey. I was going to be admitted at Primary Children’s Medical Center to start chemotherapy. The outpouring of love was really motivating, and I didn’t ever feel alone in the beginning. The plan was to work closely with Dr. Jones and Dr. Wright, to first shrink the tumor to a manageable size, and then extract it midway through treatment. Then, I would finish the other half of the treatments to make sure we killed every possible leftover cancer cell.
I had my port inserted in a small surgical procedure so they could have better access to my arteries for infusions. On my first day in the cancer unit, I was welcomed by the most gentle and kind nurses. They were sweet and inviting and knew I was very scared. They accessed my port and that’s when the infusion began. The first thing I did while the chemo slowly dripped through my I.V. was watch Cinderella, wrapped up in my Eyore blanket I had kept from the ER. I didn’t know it then, but that was going to become one of my most important chemo rituals.
As I am sure you can imagine, the chemo was absolutely horrendous to my body. Over time, I lost the hair on my head, my eyebrows, and my eyelashes. I was constantly dealing with new side effects that made me sick beyond belief. I remember telling Dr. Wright during rounds about all of my symptoms, thinking she would be horrified and shocked. She never was. She would nod and take notes, but she was never surprised by the things I told her. I thought, ‘Surely she will be shocked to hear my nails are falling off and snagging on things around me. Or that I have developed sores throughout my entire mouth, throat, and intestinal tract that prevent me from swallowing or going to the bathroom.’
I figured she would be alarmed by the times where I had to sleep with my hands and feet in ice buckets because I felt like my skin was on fire. Or even when my tongue would grow this kind of green fuzzy layer around it. None of these symptoms made her flinch. She had seen it all, and so much worse. She didn’t even bat an eye when I spent 3 days wide awake because I could not stop hallucinating giant juicy spiders hanging from my ceiling and crawling all over me. It was all ‘normal’ in the chemo world, and I too would soon lose the shock factor with each new side effect.
The time had finally come to take out my tumor. I was responding well to treatment and the tumor had shrunk significantly. They planned the surgery for February 15, and they were finally going to remove my femur and replace it with titanium. It was a 13-hour surgery that involved carefully dissecting my femur and also removing about 60% of the muscle in my leg that surrounded the bone. They needed to take all the muscle to make sure they got clean margins of healthy, non-cancerous tissue.
Dr. Jones performed the surgery, and I knew I was in the safest hands possible. Since chemotherapy compromises your immune system, it took a very long time for my incision to heal. As soon as it did, I resumed the remainder of my chemo treatments. Not long after I was tested, I had officially reached N.E.D (no evidence of disease). Even though that was very good news, I still had to finish the rest of my chemo treatments to be absolutely sure I would not ever get Ewings again. There is not enough research in treating this cancer for children so there is no way to adjust treatment. We had to go by the book. We had to do what all the other patients with success stories did because no one wanted to risk a relapse.
It was near impossible to make myself go through all the rest of the treatments knowing I was already better. It didn’t make sense to me why I would still pump my body full of poison when I was already in the clear! Nevertheless, I finally finished all of my chemo. My family threw me a giant ‘end-of-chemo’ bash and we invited anyone who wanted to join. My uncle brought fireworks, and we all celebrated with a sense of peace and relief. It was all finally over. I was still on crutches and I was still healing, but I was allowed to go back to school and begin to live my life again. I had even contacted Make-A-Wish to redeem my wish I earned through the battle for my life.
We planned an incredible trip to New York Fashion Week in February. I met designers and got to pick out some pieces to take home with me. I ate delicious pizza and saw the city! I even got to meet some of my favorite celebrities from America’s Next Top Model. It was an incredible wish trip. There was only one little thing that wasn’t quite planned during this trip… I had a miserable cold the whole time that had me constantly reaching for tissues and I would even wake up nauseous every day. I was determined to power through and have a good time regardless. As the trip came to a close, I was fulfilled and thankful for the wonderful time, but I was EXHAUSTED. It got to the point where I was so ready to go home and ride out my cold in peace.
2 days after I got back from New York, I went to see my general practitioner for some cold medicine. I had also noticed a strange rash on my chest that looked like I had freckles, but they were made of blood. It was strange, so my GP decided to draw some blood as a precaution. We asked my doctor, ‘Can you also send the result to Dr. Wright since I am still having 6-month checkups?’ The next day, Mom got a call from Dr. Wright, asking us to come to Primary’s to meet with her. I had a weird feeling about it and my mom seemed very uneasy, but she picked me up from school and we drove to Salt Lake.
We met with Dr. Wright and she had told us, ‘The blood test came back with evidence of a very high white blood cell count.’ She wanted to do more tests, but all signs were leading to cancer. This time around, I wasn’t allowed to go home and gather myself, I was immediately admitted. What I thought might be a quick stay for some testing turned out to be a month-long stay and the commencement of my first round of chemo to treat my newly diagnosed Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
It turns out too much chemo can also cause…. YOU GUESSED IT, cancer. Since there is so little research being done for childhood cancer, we nuked my body with chemo and gave myself some more cancer. This time it was blood cancer. Apparently, this is actually quite common! The new plan was to treat my Leukemia with a different kind of chemo until I was in remission, and as soon as I would hit remission or N.E.D, I would get a dose of chemo so lethal it would kill most of me and make room for new bone marrow. Yes, the next step to my survival was a bone marrow transplant. This chemo was different. It was a week-long infusion but I would have to stay quarantined in the hospital for months at a time to wait for my blood counts to climb back up. I know I don’t have to tell you it was torture but, it was torture.
Although I resisted severely, my sisters were tested to see if they would be a match for my new bone marrow. It was essential for me to find a donor that matched with me so I could have the best chance of my body accepting the new cells. I had felt like my cancer had already taken away so much time and attention from my sisters I couldn’t bear the thought of them giving even more to me. Luckily for me, they were not perfect matches, so we started the search through the ‘Be The Match’ registry.
After a few weeks, we found a perfect match. The donor was from a small town in Germany, and she was the perfect match for the best possible results. I was given the lethal dose of chemo and it was coming down to the wire for the transplant. The bone marrow was extracted from my donor and immediately put into a cooler and given to a courier who would hop directly onto a flight and personally fly the cells to me. About 24 hours later, a nurse walked in with a little cooler that carried my only chance of survival.
The cells kind of looked like a strawberry banana smoothie in a transfusion bag. One of my favorite nurses, Andi, read off all of the credentials and then hooked the bag up to the I.V.! It was pretty anticlimactic actually, but my family sat around with me and we all visualized the cells entering my body and slowly healing me along the way. It was a very special day. We call it my ‘Bone Marrow Birthday,’ so now I have 2 birthdays every year! This June will be my tenth BMT Birthday.
A common misconception is once you finish chemo, you are healed. What people who don’t go through cancer don’t know is chemo causes so much damage. It doesn’t know how to single out only the cancer cells, so it kills ALL of your cells. Good and bad. I was sick with side effects for a very long time after. I also developed something called Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD), which is when your body starts to attack your donor cells because it sees them as a threat and tries to kill them off. In order for my immune system to stop attacking my new bone marrow cells, I had to start a strong steroid treatment to suppress my immune system and let the stem cells do their thing.
I was on very high doses of Prednisone for a very long time, which had its own negative effects. While I needed it to survive, it also started to eat away at my bones. My bone density dropped significantly, and I developed something called Avascular Necrosis (AVN) in my joints. AVN is when your bone actually dies and begins to crumble. This happened to most of my joints and slowly, I have had to replace joint after joint. I have had both of my hips replaced. My right knee has been replaced three times. My left ankle is fused. My right elbow locked up and is naturally fused bent. And most recently, I had both of my shoulders replaced. Avascular Necrosis is the cause of my disability. This is why I am in a wheelchair.
This has not been an easy journey by any means. And while I have had so many intense medical traumas that have shaped who I am, they are not all that I am. I am a two-time cancer survivor, chronic pain and illness warrior, and disabled millennial, an immigrant, a Latina, and so, so, so much more. I am finally in a place in my life where I have somewhat untethered myself from the hospitals and now, I live in a new state away from my family, all on my own. I have a job, an apartment, a kitty, and I still have hope.
I have hope I didn’t go through all of this for nothing. Unlike many victims of medical trauma, I do not place my successes or challenges in the hands of an external power or being. If that were the case, I know there would be many more warriors who would have survived this similar fight as well. I do know I have been surrounded by incredible medical teams and my family and friends. I know I found the power within myself to pull through and to keep fighting. There are so many others who didn’t get the chance to live out their lives and I feel a deep responsibility to live in a way that would make them proud.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Catalina Ritzinger from Portland, Oregon. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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