In recognition of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, we have a deeply personal submission from Mary Magnani, a former patient at Columbia and a two-time cancer survivor. Mary’s story illustrates the challenges that childhood cancer survivors face as they grow into adulthood. It also speaks to the work that we do at Hope & Heroes — providing patients with comprehensive treatment and care that gives them the best chance to overcome their disease so they can grow up to be healthy adults.
My cancer journey began when, at 13 years old, I discovered the reason why I could no longer breathe while running bases during softball games or playing outside with my cousins: a grapefruit-sized tumor taking up residence in my chest near my heart and left lung. Faster than you can say ‘you have cancer’, I went from being a regular 8th grader with worries consisting of math tests and where to sit at lunch, to a preteen immersed in a world filled with needles, doctors, and scans.
In the blink of an eye I had two surgeries and a diagnosis; Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I began a chemotherapy regimen that I would follow for the next 6 months. I lost all my hair, felt tired and nauseous all the time, developed terrible mouth sores (because I was too stubborn to get my braces off) and was barely able to drag myself to school. There is no way to sugar-coat it, going through cancer treatments really sucked.
However, there were shining lights in the doctors, nurses, and staff at Columbia. My oncologist, Dr. James Garvin, is my biggest hero, always looking out for me and making sure that I received the best treatment possible. In addition to Dr. Garvin, I had three angels, Terri, Karen, and Cathy, the world’s best pediatric oncology nurses, plus child life specialists Genevieve and Rachelle, Bernice in triage, and the rest of the amazing team in the pediatric oncology department. They all made the experience of coming in to receive my treatments enjoyable, even though the treatment itself was not. Terri made sure that all procedures were painless as possible, Genevieve always helped me with a fun project to do to make the time go by faster, and everyone watched out that I didn’t break anything as I zoomed through the clinic using my IV pole as a scooter.
After finishing chemo, I completed two weeks of radiation treatments, which was way less grueling, although the long-term side effects turned out to be much greater. When treatment ended I had my port removed on a Monday, started high school that Wednesday and basically jumped back into life. I filled my days with sports and band practice and returned for yearly visits to see Dr. Garvin. Every year I was able to see how much Hope & Heroes has grown since I received treatment. I thought the massage lady that would come in once a week was great and now kids and parents could receive full acupuncture, massages, and other therapeutic treatments whenever they want.
I graduated from high school and began college at New York University. After I turned 18, instead of returning every year to see Dr. Garvin, I started receiving my follow up care through Columbia’s Center for Survivor Wellness, a service for pediatric cancer survivors, funded by Hope & Heroes, that focuses on long-term side effects from treatment and overall health. As the chances of me developing Hodgkin’s again got less and less, the chances of me developing another health problem continued to increase. My new oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Levine, became a hero to me just as Dr. Garvin was before her.
In 2010 I graduated college and worked for three years in my dad’s dental office before deciding that dentistry was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In fall 2013, I began my first year of dental school at Columbia University’s College of Dental Medicine, which rivaled my cancer treatments as the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m proud to say that I graduated with my Doctorate of Dental Surgery degree in May 2017, which also rivals my cancer survival as my biggest accomplishment. I began a residency in general dentistry with NewYork-Presbyterian at Columbia that summer and everything seemed to be going well.
At 25 years old, I had started getting yearly mammograms due to the documented long-term effects of the life-saving radiation treatment I had received when I was younger. In December 2017, I went in for my annual mammogram- that day would prove to be different. After multiple scans and an ultrasound, I was told that there was a new area of calcifications in my left breast that they wanted to biopsy. The doctor said the words “cannot rule out malignancy” and my heart sank.
I waited until after the holidays to have the biopsy performed, and on January 9, 2018, 16 years and 2 days after I had been diagnosed with cancer the first time, I received the call confirming that that area of calcification was in fact early stage breast cancer. All of a sudden I had become a cancer patient again. On March 6, 2018, I underwent a double mastectomy surgery and on May 31, after months of tissue expansion, I had reconstruction surgery to get my new boobs.
The differences in having cancer as a child and as an adult are astounding, and I could list them for hours. It immediately became clear was that it wasn’t just my parents and I in the trenches anymore- the support that I received from my friends and colleagues was overwhelming. When you have cancer as a child it’s not just the patient that is being treated, but the entire family as well and that is something that Hope & Heroes has always focused on. Not only did I receive the best possible care while being treated as a pediatric cancer patient to give me the past 16 years of normal life, but the intensive follow-up care I received gives my adult cancer story also ends in success.
I jumped back into life just as quickly after my second cancer experience as I did the first time. I’m now completing my residency and upon graduation in June 2019 intend to split my time between partnering with my dad in his practice and teaching dentistry at Columbia. Last year I began working on a project to integrate dental treatment into the standard of care for pediatric cancer patients- I want to be a part of growing the services that are available to them. The side effects of untreated dental disease and the infections that occur can cause complications during treatment and cause quality of life issues for survivors. I want kids undergoing cancer treatment to be screened and receive specialized dental treatment that will help improve their oral health care, which may have been compromised with their cancer treatments. I’m working with my teachers at Columbia Dental and pediatric cancer team to make this a reality, and I hope that next September I will be writing again to share our success.
I can’t say it’s been easy coming to terms with the fact that I now have a “first time” and a “second time” of being diagnosed with cancer. However, as I begin the rest of my life as a two-time cancer survivor I can only stay grateful for the opportunities I have been given and the amazing support of my family and friends around me. I recently learned that childhood cancer only receives 4% of the National Cancer Institute’s research budget. This blew me away and can only emphasize how important all of the efforts made by Hope & Heroes are in the fight against pediatric cancer. I owe everything to the 7th-floor pediatric oncology staff and to the amazing people at Hope & Heroes. One of my mentors at Columbia once said to me “we are not victims, we are survivors.” And that is how I intend to live the rest of my life.