I just knew I had leukemia. Like a shouting child insistent on his way, my secret disease seemed to scream in my face, “Told you!”
Shaking my head in frustration, I attempted to dislodge the thought. I was 19 years old. I couldn’t have cancer.
But my friend did. He was 22, just diagnosed with leukemia. His life changed drastically in a matter of weeks after being unable to shake what seemed like a nasty flu.
Finally, I gave into my inner hypochondriac and turned on my computer, searching for any symptoms of this hidden disease that I may have suffered recently. While what I found didn’t match, I did see one curious symptom of leukemia: a firm portion just beneath the ribcage. After poking around for a moment, I felt a spot, hard as a rock, on my right side.
In my frantic state, I dialed 911, not knowing what else to do. I felt foolish when they came to the door and I had to ask them to leave after realizing that if I did, in fact, have leukemia, being rushed to the hospital wasn’t necessarily the correct option.
However, I did determine I needed to know right away what truly was going on. I called out of work and proceeded to an ultrasound clinic. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, I was disappointed but unsurprised to be sent immediately to the ER for further testing when something worrisome appeared on my scan.
It turned out I didn’t have leukemia.
I had a tumor nearly the size of a football on my right kidney.
Words will never contain the heart-dropping shock and fear I experienced in the moment I first heard those words. For me, a new 19-year-old believer in Christ, disbelief is the only word I can think of to describe it.
After a biopsy confirmed the tumor was benign, I flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN to get a second opinion – I wanted to avoid losing my kidney. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an option, so I returned to Tampa and had laproscopic surgery to remove the tumor, along with my right kidney.
Then came another shock – after further testing, I was informed that cancer had been found in the tumor.
But as a vibrant, young believer in miracles, I knew that I was healed. That’s why I told Dr. Fishman I would be refusing post-operative chemotherapy.
He explained to me that this particular tumor was called “Wilms’ tumor” and was something he had never personally seen in an adult – it usually appears between the ages of 2-5. No one knew how long I’d had it, though it was unlikely it had been there for years, considering my lack of symptoms and how fast-growing it was. His recommendation was to treat it like any child with Wilms’ – a few months of post-op chemo.
I didn’t want to believe there was any possibility that my faith wouldn’t heal any leftover cancer cells in my body. I naively sought no family or trusted friends to offer wisdom. As a 19-year-old, I was more concerned with losing my hair than avoiding cancer at some undetermined point in my future. Dr. Fishman disagreed with my decision, but I left his office with a determination to live a healthier life. That would be my post-operative care.
For two years, life proceeded as normal… well, as normal as possible for a cancer survivor. Knowing I’d had cancer once, I lived in fear every day that it would come back. Which is why the sharp, paralyzing pain down my right side that immobilized me for the better part of one afternoon deeply frightened me. When I was finally able to stand up from the couch, I put the experience out of my mind… until two months later, when it happened again.
Still in denial that it was related to my previous tumor, I researched chiropractors and found a Christian doctor to visit, Dr. Micah Richeson at Cypress Creek Chiropractic. I insisted I must have a pinched nerve causing sharp pains. Although it wasn’t common practice for him to do so in this particular situation, he took an x-ray, explaining to me that he felt prompted to do so by something other than my symptoms.
I distinctly remember the moment he sat across from me and solemnly said there was something on the x-ray that he knew shouldn’t be there. I stood up from my chair and backed into the wall, hands searching behind me for something solid, something that would make the room stop spinning. I wanted to scream and shout and run away and pretend this wasn’t happening to me because this couldn’t be happening again. Not again.
But I didn’t run away. My chiropractor closed his office for the day and drove me to a radiology clinic for a CT scan. Numbly, I walked through the motions of another scan, with more doctors, and heard the new diagnosis: stage 4 cancer. A recurrence of my previous Wilms’ tumor was up against my heart, wrapped around arteries and pressing on my right lung, taking up space throughout the whole middle of my chest.
Inoperable. Huge. The ultimate death sentence.
I was in mortal danger. And I was angry. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I believed in God, and knew He had healed me. Why was this happening?
At first, I again refused chemotherapy. I wanted to try homeopathic remedies before resorting to pumping poison into my body. After a couple of months, the only thing that had changed for the better was my ability to eat healthier than I ever had before – the specific cancer I had wasn’t responding to anything I had tried. My new tumor doubled in size. Defeated, I went back to H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and found myself facing Dr. Fishman, the same doctor I’d told two years earlier I wouldn’t be doing post-op chemo because I didn’t need it.
“I wondered if you’d be back,” he said.
Dr. Fishman quickly sent me to the thoracic oncologist, as this now wasn’t just kidney cancer. This oncologist looked at me and said, “I’m not sure there’s much we can do. This has gone too far and is progressing quickly. You have maybe three months.”
I wasn’t allowed to go home that day. I was sent to a private room for hours before I was admitted to the hospital. In the quiet room, all by myself, I struggled to face the reality, “This is my life now.” But something in me just knew I wouldn’t die. However, what I didn’t know was how long this journey would last, how hard it might be, and how this story would unfold.
The first several weeks of chemo were terrible, to say the least – I fell into a “chemo coma,” a common reaction to chemotherapy for people who are first beginning and/or are smaller in size. It is not a pleasant experience to go from a relatively healthy 20-something to a non-functioning shell of a human being. I could hear people talking around me, but my brain was too muddled to process what they were saying. My lifeless body, incapable of fighting back, refused to respond to anyone or anything around me.
Days passed slowly and painfully. For the first week, my hair began to clump together and stick to itself. I left it in a ponytail, irrationally trying to hold on to a faint hope that I wouldn’t lose my hair.
But like all terrifying days we know will come, it came, and too soon. As though someone took a pair of scissors to it, my hair came out in chunks one day when I managed to make it into the shower. I stood, despondent, placing the pieces of hair onto the shower wall as I wept uncontrollably. My femininity, the security blanket of my appearance… they were stolen from me in that moment.
The next year of my life was, in many ways, simultaneously the worst and most character-building time of my life. I was angry with God for allowing me to get cancer again, and I also knew that if I had to go through this season, I wanted every part of it to bring Him glory. I begged for miraculous healing that seemed never to come, and I wanted to be closer to Him and know Him more deeply than ever before. I began reading every scripture about healing I could find out loud – speaking life into my body, the real medicine.
I stopped wearing wigs – not only because they were hot, itchy, and a hassle, but because I wanted people to see me bald. It became a conversation starter that allowed me to glorify God in the midst of disease. If I was actually going to die, I was at least going to go down with a fight to bring people to know Jesus.
As my body became weaker, neuropathy set in and the feeling in my hands and feet was gone. Instead of walking normally, I lumbered around in big steps. Weakened and in immense pain, I couldn’t hold a cup or write my name.
At one of the darkest points in my life, I got home from a chemo treatment and got in bed. I didn’t move for days except to visit the bathroom. Every part of me ached down to the bone, and no medication would ease my suffering. Shaking and weak, I released myself from the ball on my bed to get into the bathtub. I cried out to God, “When will this stop? Please, God, make this stop!”
In addition to utter despair from physical trauma, I walked through financial ruin while on chemotherapy. I couldn’t hold a job due to my illness and found myself in an empty apartment, unable to stock my pantry or refrigerator. I stood in line at the local homeless shelter to have enough food to survive. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing what food I got, but because the normal fare was day old bread or danishes, I begged for extra canned tuna or any other semi-healthy product, knowing I needed to do everything possible to keep my body healthy.
For Thanksgiving, about five months after starting chemo, I flew home to Wisconsin to visit my family. After losing my luggage after a layover, I got a call from the wife of the man who had accidentally taken my luggage home with him. She kindly mailed my luggage back to me and enclosed a $75 gift card. Sure that she had no idea the impact that comparatively small amount of money meant to me, I mailed her a letter of thanks and explained my situation and the blessing she had been in that occasion. A few weeks later, I speechlessly read a return letter from her, including a check for $1,000.
To this day, I haven’t been able to find or contact her again. Her gift was still one of the most profound, random acts of kindness I’ve ever known.
Throughout this valley of the shadow of death, I knew that I wanted my life to be a sacrifice to God. I also knew I was destined to do great things I’d yet to discover, and that I wasn’t ready to see the end.
After a year and a couple months, the chemotherapy shrank the tumor to an operable size. Always the avid researcher, I found the best thoracic lung surgeon I could and made my way to Houston to MD Anderson Cancer Center, with a great deal of financial assistance from the American Cancer Society, to which I will forever feel deep gratitude. The surgery required removal of two of the three lobes of my right lung and left me with a 6-inch scar down my chest. Test results showed the cancer cells had all died by the time the tumor was removed.
Though recovery from surgery was no sunny, cloudless day, mine progressed quickly. I now bear no lasting side effects from the loss of one kidney and two-thirds of a lung, not to mention over a year of chemotherapy. After being told I would most likely not live a normal life missing most of a lung, I fully appreciate my regular workouts, running and lifting weights like anyone else around me. Nothing could please me more than to know that Christ gets the glory from everything that happened to me then and from my life today.
While natural remedies didn’t immediately heal my cancer, the education I received in healthy living taught me how to eat life-giving foods. This journey proved to me that these foods are not as easily found as I believe they should be. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself circling gas stations and convenience stores, searching for healthy options while on the go. But even with the increase in interest for healthy lifestyle choices, you still must go out of your way to find a health food store.
Then, in 2014, more than 4 years after my surgery, living in a new state, the Lord gave me the vision for ESSTAR: to make healthy, life-giving foods accessible on every corner through convenience stores.
Even in the fledgling stage, this movement has already been worth every sacrifice I’ve made, and so much more. I’ve sold almost everything I own and moved into a 500-square-foot studio apartment in order to make my vision a reality. The “stuff” is worth nothing compared to this passion I’ve found to take a stand for my people – those who desire to live healthy lives and people fighting disease who need life-giving food for their bodies. Like Esther in scripture, I refuse to stand idly by when I have the power to influence change.
I have no explanation for this vision other than The Lord. While others may see this need, the miraculous way in which things have come together could only be from Him. Five years ago, I asked God why I had to endure such pain and suffering. Recovering from stage 4 cancer was blessing enough – but now I look back and can see God’s hand in the midst of my deepest turmoil. His plan is much greater than my own individual healing; it’s about redemption for a nation.
No matter how many years removed I become from my experience with cancer, and no matter where God takes ESSTAR, I will always keep my red bag of medicine bottles from Moffitt and the special heel-less shoes I wore during chemotherapy. I never want to forget where I came from… or what we’re fighting for.
Krista Anderson would like to thank The American Cancer Society, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, Dr. Fishman, MD Anderson Cancer Center, The Mayo Clinic, Lakewood Church, Dodie Osteen, and the unnamed woman who sent back her lost luggage. Without the support and impact of these people and organizations, this journey would have looked very different. Her deepest thanks goes to each and every person involved in her treatment, survival, and recovery.
This story is written in first person. It is a retelling, written by the author listed. Krista has approved this version of the story.