Surviving sarcoma took a different treatment route than I expected

One weekend in June 2017, I became incredibly ill. I’d faced digestive issues for three years, but this pain was different. By Monday, the pain was so intense I couldn’t eat or sleep.

When the medication my doctor prescribed didn’t work, he ordered an ultrasound. They determined my gallbladder was failing but also noticed a small lesion lodged between my small intestine, pancreas and gallbladder. A subsequent CT scan led to a laparoscopic surgery, where my local doctors removed my gallbladder and what they could of the tumor, which was resting on my pancreas. The biopsy results showed it was undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma.

Coming to MD Anderson for sarcoma treatment

None of my doctors in Colorado had encountered sarcoma before, so they encouraged me to come to MD Anderson for treatment. Even though sarcoma is rare, I knew the statistics associated with the disease are just that – statistics. I’m an individual, and there’s hope for each of us.

My husband and I came to MD Anderson in July 2017. Based on what my Colorado surgeon had said, we thought I’d quickly undergo a Whipple procedure, which would remove part of my pancreas, stomach and small intestine, along with my gallbladder. But Dr. Anthony Conley and his colleagues in MD Anderson’s Sarcoma Center reviewed my case and decided to have me start with six rounds of chemotherapy using gemcitabine and docetaxel anhydrous, followed by radiation therapy and the Whipple procedure, if needed.

My chemotherapy side effects

I experienced intense side effects from the chemotherapy, including folliculitis, thrush, fatigue, nausea, hair loss, loss of my sense of taste, gastrointestinal issues, and I smelled like chemicals.

After the third round of chemo, my liver enzyme levels became abnormal, and I had to take an extra week off between treatments. By the fourth round, my care team had decided that even though my tumor was shrinking, continuing chemotherapy would cause more harm than good.

An unexpected turn in my sarcoma treatment

Though Dr. Conley considered radiation therapy, he feared it would damage my small intestine, since it was close to the tumor. That meant I needed the Whipple procedure sooner than expected.

Because of the tumor’s proximity to my pancreas, Dr. Matthew Katz, who specializes in pancreatic cancer surgery, would perform my Whipple procedure.

On Dec. 13, 2017, I was wheeled into the operating room after praying with my family. When I awoke hours later, my husband and mom walked in smiling bigger than I’d ever seen. “Did you hear?” my husband asked me. “They went in to do the surgery, and they couldn’t find any cancer!”

About two-and-a-half hours into the surgery, Dr. Katz, who performs many of these operations each month, came out and told my family he was confident there was no cancer. He took a few samples to confirm, and sure enough, the pathology showed no evidence of disease. I couldn’t believe it!

Even though chemotherapy made me very sick, it also helped save my life. It is still hard for me to grasp, but I am so thankful.

 I now return to MD Anderson every three months for scans, and I’m still cancer-free.  

Gratitude for second chances

Having cancer saved my life. I know not every cancer patient feels this way, but in my case, cancer re-sparked my faith, my joy, my relationships and my appreciation for nutrition and fitness. I’m going after things I’ve always wanted to do, like write a book. I walk almost 5 miles every day because I love being outside. I also share my cancer story on my blog and on Instagram to encourage others affected by cancer. 

I can’t thank MD Anderson enough. The only way I know how to show my appreciation for a second chance at life is to live my life in gratitude and servitude to others.

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