TELL ME YOUR STORY
"So when I was 13 years old, I started getting randomly sick on and off, which was weird because I was a pretty healthy person. So I would get like colds or flu like symptoms on and off for about fourish months. I would get sick for a week and then I would feel okay for a couple weeks, and then I would get sick again. Along with this I would get other weird symptoms like really bad joint pain in my wrists. My wrists were the worst, they would just throb in pain. I also had elbow and knee pain. So we went to a bunch of random doctors to see what was wrong. They thought I had arthritis or something, but that was weird because I was only 13. That would be really rare. Basically I had all of these symptoms, but they couldn’t really figure out what was wrong with me.
Then one day I was going to church and I wore a yellow dress. My mom noticed that my skin was a very similar color to the dress and she was like “Okay, I don’t know why, but McKenna looks like she has jaundice right now”. We ended up calling the doctor and he told us to go to the Texas Children’s Hospital to get evaluated. So whenever we got there they were pretty quick to figure things out. They told us that it would be either mono, arthritis, or cancer. All I could think was that those were three very, very different things. So I had to get surgery on my hip bone to get a piece of bone marrow to test it to see what I had. That was the test to rule out cancer, but when the test results came back it showed that I had cancer cells. That’s when they diagnosed me with ALS Leukemia. I was in shock after that for a little bit.
I was a week away from my 14th birthday when I was diagnosed, so I was very self conscious. I remember being very scared about being bald, but feeling like I wasn’t going to die though. I felt like okay, this is gonna suck, but I’m pretty sure things will be okay. I knew it was going to be a long road. Treatment for a female for ALS Leukemia is two and half years. In the first eight months, I had to go to the hospital weekly for chemotherapy and to get a spinal tap. Because of this, I couldn’t do my eighth grade year. I felt like this weird and awkward 14 year old girl who ended up losing her hair. So I was bald, I wasn’t in school, I went to the doctor all the time, and I just felt very sick. Majority of those eight months I felt nauseated and was in pain.
The remaining of those two and half years, I got a little bit of my life back. I just had to go in once a month for a spinal tap to make sure that I didn’t get any cancer cells in my spinal cord because if they did then I would have to get radiation. Luckily, they never did. I finished chemotherapy when I was 16 and I’m going on 10 years cancer free now.
The whole process was really hard. I feel like after cancer has a lot of challenges too. They were both hard, but for very different reasons. I feel like in the moment, it was more physically hard, because you just don’t have enough energy. Your emotions are kind of more muted when you’re in the middle of going through chemo. After being cancer free, there’s just a lot of anxiety that comes with it. You’re always nervous. Getting sick isn’t just getting sick anymore. It’s like, oh, this was a cancer symptom and so you get triggered. I’ve had to do a lot of therapy to work through that anxiety, and it’s still something I definitely struggle with daily. I’ve gotten a little better at it though. Usually with this type of cancer, it’s not common to relapse so that helps."
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST CHALLENGE?
"The hardest part was the anxiety that cancer has on you after. This is something that’s starting to get talked about more, which I am happy about because I kind of felt isolated. Like I felt crazy and scared all of the time. If I had a headache, it’s not just a headache, like oh it’s a brain tumor. I felt like I was living in this constant state of fear."
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU'VE LEARNED?
"I would say being able to open up more to other people and really lean on other people. I kind of kept a lot of things in. At first it felt weird opening up because when people found out I beat cancer, they’re like “wow, that’s so amazing” and it just feels weird. I kind of more recently learned to open up more to other people. Being able to talk about it and get help for it is probably the best thing that I learned from it."
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST BLESSING THAT HAS COME FROM THIS?
"The biggest blessing that has come from this is having more empathy for other people. It’s helped me a lot with my work as a therapist. As a therapist, I’m not gonna experience the same situation that every person that I’m working with has, but I feel like it’s allowed me to have more empathy for them. I can understand some of their pain, anxiety, depression, and trauma. Even though it’s a different type of trauma, a different type of pain, and even a different type of life experience, I can still resonate on some level with that. So I think like the biggest blessing is just my ability to be able to connect with people and empathize with them on a deeper level than I would have ever been able to do before, if I had never gone through something like this."
IF YOU COULD SAY ONE THING TO SOMEONE WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH THIS NOW, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
"I would probably tell them that first of all, it really sucks and it’s okay to feel hopeless right now. I think everyone needs that time to process what’s happening. Also, I would tell them to not feel weird or dumb about opening up about things that are hard for you. If anyone does make you feel dumb for that, then you need to advocate for yourself and really express what is is that you do need and find other relationships with people that can really be there for you and listen to you."