Sutter Cancer Centers
Monique - Back to School
One doctor called her “Princess.” Another nicknamed her “Sleeping Beauty,” because she was always asleep when he came into her hospital room. Her mom refers to her as “Mija” (pronounced Mee-ha), short for “Mi hija,” or “my daughter” in Spanish. Monique would probably call herself lucky and grateful.
Diagnosed with bone cancer in her leg at 16, just before starting her junior year at Dixon High School, Monique is now a 21-year-old college student. The journey between the day Monique’s knee suddenly started hurting and today has been long and difficult for her and her family, but her appreciation for where that journey brought her and the people she met along the way is immense.
When the pain first began, Monique and her mother Linda didn’t think it was anything serious. Monique’s older sister Lisette had experienced growing pains, so it seemed likely that Monique was having them, too. But when the pain got worse instead of better, Linda took her daughter to the doctor. They had the X-ray on a Monday and the doctor called on Tuesday to say he was ordering and MRI and referring them to an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon took one look at the MRI and told Monique and Linda that this was way over his head and that he was sending her to doctors in Sacramento. When those doctors turned out to be pediatric oncologists with Sutter Children's Center, Sacramento, Drs. Yung Yim and YiSheng Lee, mother and daughter were scared.
“We love Drs. Yim and Lee, and Dr. Yim was very kind that day,” recalls Linda, “but he was also very upfront with us. He told us there was a tumor on Monique’s knee and that he was 90 percent certain it was osteosarcoma. He also let us know that amputation was a possibility. The shock was immense…we both started crying.”
Dr. Yim sent them to Richard O’Donnell, M.D., at UCSF Medical Center. “He looked at the MRI and said he had some good news,” Linda says. “He told us that he would be able to save Monique’s leg, but he also told us it was osteosarcoma and that Monique would start on chemotherapy to see if that would shrink the tumor before he performed surgery. After surgery, she would have a month off to recover before starting chemotherapy again. And he told us the chemotherapy would have to be very strong.”
It was the fall of her junior year, but Monique wasn’t able to deal with her treatments and go to class. “I decided to take the year off,” Monique says. “The chemotherapy was intense, but it did shrink the tumor, which was better for the surgery.”
Linda had taken a leave from her job as a hair stylist when Monique started chemotherapy, and she understood how hard it was for a teenage girl to lose her hair. So when Monique’s beautiful long brown hair started falling out, she cut it a little shorter, and then a little more, until the day came that Monique said she was ready to let her shave it off. “I wasn’t going to make that decision for her,” says Linda. “I let her tell me when she was ready.”
The chemotherapy shrunk the tumor enough for Monique to have surgery by the beginning of the next year. To make certain he got it all, Dr. O’ Donnell removed the tissue and bone from above Monique’s knee to about two inches above her ankle, replacing the bone with two metal rod prostheses joined to a metal hinge knee. After 10 days in the hospital, Monique went home to Dixon to recover before starting back on chemotherapy.
“That was a really difficult time,” Monique says. “I had to get my leg functioning right away, but they couldn’t delay the chemotherapy either. I was trying to rehab my leg, but I was weak from the chemo. And there was never a break—if I wasn’t on chemo, I was doing intense physical therapy.”
Those were the darkest days for the family. Monique had only weighed 91 lbs. when she was diagnosed and she dropped to 74 lbs. during her treatments. Linda never left Monique’s side. She tried everything she could think of to get her daughter to eat, but it wasn’t until her treatments ended that Monique was able to start putting on weight again.
And while she wouldn’t have done it any other way, Linda admits that losing income the family depended on put stress on everyone. They were fortunate to live in a closely knit community because it was the people of Dixon that helped them get by.
Monique recalls, “We were lucky to have so much community support. Our church had monthly collections for us and the people from my mom’s salon had two fundraisers. People were wonderful to us.”
For the first fundraiser, the other stylists at Linda’s salon made baskets that they raffled off, raising $3,000. The second fundraiser, a hair-cut-athon, raised another $3,000. Community members also contributed to a fund set up for Monique by a local bank. “Thanks to them and our church, we were able to keep up with our payments,” says Linda. “We couldn’t have made it without their help.”
Finally, the treatments were over in August, and Monique was more than ready to get on with her life. She had lost her junior year, but she made it up by attending continuation high school and managed to graduate with her class.
“Five or six of us from the salon did hair at the graduation party,” says Linda. “So I got to be there that night and watch her having fun—just being a normal kid again.”
Monique doesn’t take “normal” for granted. As she puts it, “I know how lucky we were, and I want to pay that back.” Whenever another child or teenager is diagnosed with osteosarcoma and wants to talk to someone, she’s there to listen and provide encouragement. She’s been talking to a girl named Megan who is going through treatment. “My walk is practically back to normal now,” Monique says, “and I know it helps Megan to see that and to see me getting on with my life.”
Monique’s journey made her aware of how precious life is and also gave her a purpose. “I’m studying to be a surgical technician in college. As I was going through this, I knew I wanted to do something in the medical field to repay all the wonderful help I got from my nurses and doctors.”
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