Meisha Brown: Sixteen-year Childhood Cancer Survivor and Cancer Health Disparities Researcher
I was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma in June 1998. Cancer has caused me many difficult moments in life; there were even times when my doctors didn’t know if I would make it. However, cancer brought out the best in me, and thanks to the team of doctors who help me manage the side effects of my treatments, I am studying for a master’s degree in health studies and hope that one day I’ll have a faculty position alongside the doctors who helped make my cancer history.
My journey with cancer started when I was just 8 years old, a few weeks into the summer after I finished second grade. I was experiencing abdominal pain and nausea, and I was really, really tired. My mom knew something wasn’t right and took me to the pediatrician. During the exam, I noticed the pediatrician was paying a lot of attention to one particular area of my stomach, and then he started talking to my mom in hushed tones. He told her that he wanted me to have an emergency CT scan and have the results read that day.
We had the scan and then went back to the pediatrician. After he performed another physical exam he asked my mom to speak to him outside the room. I knew at that point that it must be bad. I overheard the doctor tell my mom she had to choose which hospital she wanted me to be treated at on the spot. She chose The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and after going home to pick up some things, we went straight there.
After three days of tests, I had emergency surgery to remove some of the tumors around my small intestine, colon, ovaries, and appendix. I think it was after this first surgery that it really hit me: What was I going to face? What was the future ahead for me?
I was anxious to get answers to these questions and to try and understand what cancer and lymphoma meant, because these two words were used interchangeably. At first, it was hard for my child-like mind to understand cancer, but the doctors took the time to explain everything to me – they were very good. They used teddy bears, puppets, and dry-erase pictures to satisfy my curiosity and push for information. I learned a lot about the science of cancer at a very young age.
My initial treatment lasted just over eight months. I had multiple surgeries, including a small bowel resection and an appendectomy. I have a 10-inch incision in my abdomen that was opened twice to remove some tumors. I also had a number of chemotherapies; one regimen that was particularly hard was called R-CHOP [rituximab, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, and prednisolone]. All the kids in the hospital called doxorubicin “red devil” because of what it did to us. We all knew that if one of our friends had it on their pole it would be a while before we would be playing with them again.
Throughout my treatment I had a feeding tube because I couldn’t tolerate any regular food by mouth except for yogurt and ice pops. I still have GI [gastrointestinal] problems as a result of my treatments, and I have scrupulous dietary restrictions because I can’t digest foods.
During my treatment I was able to keep up with my schoolwork. There was a hospital school program at MD Anderson and a teacher from my school came to my house when I couldn’t make it there. However, I remember a time when I couldn’t get out of bed and one of my teachers persuaded me to come down to the classroom because she didn’t want me to fall behind. It made me understand how important education is and that it gives people opportunities to do great things with their lives.
My doctors have been unable to find any evidence of cancer since February 1999, but I have had to learn to live with the side effects of the treatments I received. This has been a challenge, and there was a time when I missed three months of high school because of the pain. The side effects also affected my relationships in high school. The other children couldn’t relate to the fact that I was taking more than 20 medications and still felt tired a lot of the time. I didn’t let it keep me down, however, and cancer has actually given me more positives in life than negatives.
Now, I’m doing really well, I finished college and am pursuing a master’s degree in health studies with a focus on cancer health disparities. I still see five specialty oncologists at MD Anderson every two months and a few doctors outside MD Anderson who help manage the long-term side effects of my cancer treatments, like my GI issues, neuropathy, and osteoarthritis, for which I wear a knee brace. This great interdisciplinary team of doctors has a patient-centered approach to care, and the fact that I feel they are listening to me has really improved the quality of my life.
Cancer definitely shaped my outlook on life, but it helps me to know that it could have been worse – I could have passed away like so many of my friends did. Instead, I was given another chance at life, and I hope that I can give back through my research to help make sure that equitable health care, prevention, and early detection programs are accessible to all.