Chordoma survivor: How a spine tumor changed my perspective

My life changed forever on the morning of Nov. 6, 2016. I’d felt some pain in my lower back, and decided to go to the emergency room at the hospital where I work as a nurse manager. I thought I would get some fluids for hydration and be sent back home to my husband and two babies. But God had different plans for me. 

Instead of fluids, I had CT and MRI scans of my spine. When the ER physician said, “Ms. Mesa, you have a lesion at L2,” I knew immediately that tumor on my spine was cancer. I could see it all over his face.

Why I chose MD Anderson

In that moment, my husband, mom, dad and I shared a look. We knew we would go straight to MD Anderson. For us, there was no option other than the best cancer hospital.

MD Anderson has an exceptional reputation and outcomes, so I didn’t mind making the five-hour drive from my home in Louisiana. I knew it was the right decision, because from the first time I walked through the doors, I was treated like the most important person in the world. In MD Anderson’s Brain and Spine Center, I met my superheroes: neurosurgeon Dr. Laurence Rhines and Laurel Westcarth, his nurse practitioner. They treated me like my life mattered more than anything else. 

My chordoma

After additional testing at MD Anderson, I learned my spine tumor was a chordoma, a very rare type of bone cancer. Thankfully, Dr. Rhines and his team sat with me and answered every question I had. They didn’t rush me, and they explained everything in exquisite detail. Shelly Kennedy, Dr. Rhines’ research nurse, was also a great resource. 

Surgery is usually the first treatment recommended for chordoma, and that was true for me, too. Because my case was complex, I needed a 20-hour surgery that included multiple different procedures and a team of specialists. On Feb. 14, 2017, Dr. Rhines, along with plastic surgeon Dr. Alexander Mericli and thoracic surgeon Dr. Garrett Walsh, removed the entire tumor from my spine in one piece, without spilling any cancer cells. Then, they rebuilt my spine. I have rods, screws, a cage and a bone graft, plus three super-impressive, beautiful scars that I couldn’t be more proud of.

My path to recovery

Dr. Rhines, Laurel and I had a plan for my successful recovery. I promised I would do everything they asked, if they promised me more time with my beautiful babies and husband. I went to physical therapy three days a week for six months, then got back in the gym. Now, a year and a half later, I’m a regular in hot yoga classes and am getting certified to teach group weightlifting classes. 

Survivorship and emotional recovery

I don’t think the magnitude of everything I’d been through really hit me until I was almost fully recovered, about a year after my spine surgery. I was so focused on my physical recovery, I didn’t spend time recovering emotionally. I felt absolutely alone, like no one could understand what I was going through. I’m pain-free now, but I can still feel the effects of surgery, and it’s a daily reminder that I had cancer. 

A different perspective

Everyone told me how proud they were of me and how awesome I’d done in my recovery, but I felt so sad and alone. For them, it was over. But for me, it was just beginning: the constant fear that every twinge was the chordoma returning. That hasn’t completely gone away, but through faith and family support, it’s getting better. Cancer makes us feel like we’re not in control, but we get to decide to make the most of every single day we have.

I still get scared and anxious sometimes, but I also view life differently. I soak up every single minute I have with my family. I relate to my patients completely differently, now that I’ve been a patient, too. And I thank God for every minute I have, for giving me hope and a future, and for bringing me to my superheroes at MD Anderson.  

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