After undergoing treatment for a rare form of cancer, Trisha Henry Gaffney was eager to put her health problems behind her. The last thing she wanted to do was dwell on the effects of her illness.
On Valentine’s Day 1996, 19-year-old Trisha was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive tumor usually found in the head, neck, hands or feet of young children. Trisha’s was the first reported case to occur in the right ureter, the tube connecting the kidney and bladder.
After going through surgery to remove her right kidney, ureter, and a portion of her bladder, Trisha spent a year at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. During her time here, nurses encouraged her to get involved with Camp Sunshine, a fun getaway for kids living with cancer. Initially, she resisted. She just wanted to move on.
“It was hard for me to focus on the fact that I was sick,” Trisha said.
Trying to Get Back to Normal
Trisha’s doctor, Thomas Olson, M.D., knew she was eager to get back to school, and in January 1997, he sent her back to Illinois—where she was a student and scholarship swimmer at the University of Illinois—to finish the last few months of chemotherapy.
Her treatment ended in April 1997, and she was ready to put her attention on all of the positive forces in her life. During her treatment in Atlanta, Trisha had started dating Andrew Gaffney, a fellow swimmer from high school. She had a big group of friends in Champaign, Ill., she looked forward to seeing again. In addition, she became a journalism major with the goal of focusing her energy on telling others’ inspirational stories of overcoming obstacles.
In May 1998, Trisha suddenly had a change of heart; she wanted to be involved in the survivor community. She decided to volunteer as a Camp Sunshine counselor, helping children navigate the physical and emotional hurdles of battling cancer. There, she found an incredible community of survivors.
A fellow counselor, Kati Gardner, encouraged Trisha to visit the new Survivor Clinic at Children’s, but the idea of going to even more doctors didn’t sit well with her.
“You don’t want your cancer to define you,” Trisha said, “but as you get older, you realize it plays a much bigger part in your life than you’re willing to admit.”
Hearing More Bad News
After several years of going to general doctors for check-ups, Trisha finally made an appointment with the Survivor Clinic.
“After college, I devoted myself to my work and being normal,” Trisha said. “I put cancer behind me. Then it reared its ugly head at 32.”
During her first appointment at the Survivor Clinic, Trisha received her health records. She was able to gain a broad understanding of her entire health history, including her treatments and the issues they could cause, called late effects.
After meeting with Medical Director Lillian Meacham, M.D., Trisha went to a fertility specialist, who delivered some devastating news.
The lab work showed Trisha’s chemotherapy and 23 radiation treatments had wreaked havoc on her body. Only one ovary was functional, and the radiation had damaged her uterus; she was approaching an early menopause, and she would not be able to carry a child.
“It’s devastating when you can’t have a family,” Trisha said. “I froze my eggs that year. I thought, ‘Screw you, cancer! I want my own kid.’”
Taking Control and Moving Forward
After her sister’s best friend offered to be a surrogate, Trisha and her former boyfriend—now husband—Andrew became parents to Isabella in April 2013.
The effect of the Survivorship Program isn’t lost on Trisha. Without the intervention of doctors and nurses in her health, her life would be incredibly different.
“If I hadn’t had my friend telling me to go to the Survivor Clinic,” Trisha said, “I wouldn’t have my daughter.”
Armed with the knowledge about her medications, treatments and the potential challenges ahead, Trisha is empowered to be an advocate for her own health. She knows it is survivorship that defines her—not cancer.
She encourages survivors to take advantage of the resources available through the Survivorship Program so they can become healthy, happy adults.
“It is great that in this day and age, children will most likely live,” Trisha said. “But once they do, they’re going to have some expectations about that life.”