Brianna Jackson - Patient Story

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"Dr. Farma was so concerned about me and took a personal interest in my family and me. I’m so very grateful."

— Brianna Jackson

I was 22 years old in December 2012 when I noticed a tennis-ball-sized lump in my abdomen. It didn’t really bother me and I didn’t go to the doctor because I didn’t have health insurance. I was healthy and I figured I would get insurance later when I needed it. I was just focused on working full time in childcare and getting ready to go back to college in the fall.

Eventually I did apply for health insurance and was approved. In March 2013, the mass had grown bigger, and I had little appetite. I was scared when I began vomiting every time I tried to eat, and finally I went to the ER at a local hospital. The ER physician ordered a CAT scan that found a large 17-cm mass in my abdomen, a desmoid tumor. I was diagnosed with sarcoma.

Even though a desmoid tumor doesn't metastasize, I was told that it can grow aggressively, compress vital organs, and cause life-threatening problems. I agreed to have surgery the next day, but the first surgeon did a biospy, which showed that the tumor was maliganant. By that point, I looked as though I was nine months pregnant. At 5'8" tall, my weight had gone down to only 120 pounds.

Because of the biospy results, the surgeon immediately referred me to Fox Chase Cancer Center, where I met with a medical oncologist and surgical oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Farma. They admitted me to the hospital that day and put me on TPN intravenous nutrition a few days later. Their plan was to shrink the tumor with chemotherapy prior to surgery, but the tumor unfortunately did not respond to the treatment and continued to grow.

My Fox Chase medical team told me that the surgical procedure would be very complex and dangerous, and that I was at risk of losing bowel function. They said I should be treated by Guilherme Costa, MD, a transplant specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. My health insurance company initially declined the request for surgery, but Dr. Movva and Dr. Farma spent many hours on the phone and finally convinced the company to cover my surgery in Pittsburgh. 

I underwent a nine-hour procedure to remove the tumor, one-third of my bowel, my spleen, pancreas, gall bladder, and a portion of my stomach. Emotionally, the surgery was a relief, because I wanted that thing out of me. I am so grateful to Dr. Farma for finding the most appropriate surgeon for my very rare cancer and fighting with the insurance company so that I could have the operation.

I had some pain following the surgery, but not an incredible amount. Between the time I was diagnosed and the time I felt ready to return to work, 10 months had passed. I went back to work part-time and worked with the older kids in childcare rather than the younger ones, who required more energy and hands-on attention. My body wasn't as strong, and I had to adjust to a new lifestyle.

Eight months after surgery, I had a recurrence and was treated with several medications, radiation, and weekly chemotherapy. Today, everything is stable and has been for some time. I count my blessings because, after all the medications, the only side effect I experienced was hair loss after my first two courses of chemotherapy. My hair has now grown back and is even better than before.

I returned to college in January 2015, while I was also receiving chemotherapy infusions every other week at Fox Chase. I was probably a little more tired than usual with school, work, assignments, and commuting, but I managed. I graduated in the fall of 2016 with an undergraduate degree in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, the first in my family to get a college degree. Next I plan to begin studying for the GRE and work on strengthening my newly acquired ASL (American Sign Language) skills. 

I have a wonderful family, including parents who recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary, two nieces who are growing up beautifully, and siblings. My life is different now, but good. I now deal with a shortened bowel, which can make anything surrounding food a strategic choice. My body has come a long way over the years, and it's much easier to manage now. Overall, I find that I am more grateful for the little things in life and I take fewer things for granted. There are things I am still working on to improve my life, but I am now definitely more conscientious. 

For anyone going through a diagnosis of cancer, I encourage staying positive. I have never been a pessimist, so it might be easier said than done, but staying positive helps. It also helps to keep a journal so that you have a place to express yourself if you don't want to talk with others about how you are feeling. It is an important part of the journey. 

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