Patient StoriesHead & Neck Cancer

There Is Hope, Never Give Up!

After spending many nights in pain, unable to breathe, Kayla Sanderson was told that the lump in her neck was “nothing” but a bad ear infection. Finally, she found out a tumor was blocking her airways.
June 2021 Vol 7 No 3
Kayla Sanderson
Columbus, Ohio
With my 4 children.

I couldn’t say when the symptoms started, but I do remember that in October 2014 they became unbearable. I remember many nights lying flat on my back, unable to breathe. It was as if something was blocking my throat, which I later found out was a tumor blocking my airways.

Lump in My Neck

Some nights I would lie down and not be able to lift my head, because of the neck pain. After my daughter was born (in mid-September 2014), I saw a lump in my neck, which was very painful. Doctors say that most cancerous lumps are not painful. Mine was terribly painful. I tried warm and cold compresses, anything to relieve the pain. I never thought about cancer.

My daughter was about a week old, the lump was growing aggressively, and the pain was getting worse, radiating to my ear. I knew I had to go to the emergency department. At that time, I was living by myself with 2 small kids. I was distant from my family, because I liked being alone.

“It’s Nothing”

I finally went to the hospital, where I was told it was nothing. They didn’t do any tests, despite the lump in my neck, which they said was a bad ear infection that had spread to the lymph nodes in my neck. I was prescribed antibiotics.

I knew it was more, but I went home and took antibiotics for 7 days. The pain was getting worse, so I went back to the hospital. They prescribed a stronger antibiotic for 10 days.

I was in so much pain, and the lump was noticeably big. Scarves became my new friends—I felt that people were always looking at the lump.

It’s Not Nothing

One day, I was listening to music through my earbud headphones and noticed I couldn’t hear on the left side. At first I thought it was the earbud, so I tried it in the other ear: it wasn’t the earbud! I couldn’t hear in my left ear.

I went back to the emergency department and demanded to have more tests. They finally agreed to do an MRI and a CT scan. That night I was admitted into the hospital but received no explanations until the next day. I was told I would have answers after they got the biopsy results, which would take a few days, and I would remain in the hospital until then.

My parents took my kids, and from that night my life changed forever. I went from not talking to my family every day to needing them more than ever. All I could do was cry. I just wanted my babies. I was devastated by being away from them, and emotional that my parents picked up the pieces for me, on top of their own issues.

When the doctors told me of the actual diagnosis, my best friend and I were sitting in the hospital room, waiting anxiously. After many tests, biopsies, and weeks in the hospital, it was a relief. I had been battling symptoms for months. I did my own research and had prepared myself for a cancer diagnosis. Many sleepless nights, googling, researching my symptoms.

Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma

The doctor came in and said I had stage III nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The cancer had originated in my nasopharynx (the part between the back of the nose and the throat), and spread to the lymph nodes in my neck, throat, and tonsils.

My first reaction was a slight smirk, followed by, “So is my hair going to fall out?” and, “Am I going to die?”

I looked at my best friend and saw tears in her eyes. I had never seen her so emotional until then. I just broke down and cried, realizing that this was really happening. I was always more scared for everyone else: my kids, siblings, parents, friends. The hurt they would experience. If I were going to die, there was nothing I could do, right? They would have to live with that pain every day.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is a rare head and neck cancer. I was only 23 years old, and a mom of 2. My son was 3 years old, and my daughter only 3 weeks old. “I’m going to die, and my kids will not remember me.” That was my main thought, and that I was going to lose my hair. I was more concerned with losing my hair than dying—crazy, right? If I was going to die, I was just going to die; this was out of my control. But my hair, that I could change.

The only things I knew about cancer were hair falling out, and death. My uncle had cancer, and he did not survive.

My Treatment and a Feeding Tube

My treatment plan was chemotherapy once a week, and radiation Monday through Friday, for 3 months. That seemed manageable, although it was an everyday fight. The doctors assured us that I would beat the cancer, so long as I was willing to fight.

Everything leading up to my treatment happened fast. I was seeing many doctors, and my mom was at every appointment from the beginning to the end, asking questions I did not know to ask.

The thing I hated most was the feeding tube, which was inserted into my stomach for liquid meals—a preparation for what was to come. Because my cancer involves the neck, most of the radiation was to my neck, which caused burns inside my mouth and throat. This made eating nearly impossible. At first, I was against the feeding tube. In the end, it saved my life.

My first treatment was scary. I didn’t know what to expect. I had intravenous (IV) chemotherapy. The next day, at about 1 am, I threw up and thought that I was going to pass out. I was rushed to the hospital and could not stop vomiting.

Apparently, this was a reaction to a high-dose chemotherapy with cisplatin, so they switched my treatment to a lower-dose chemotherapy once a week, followed by anti-nausea medicines and IV fluids for 3 days.

Some days I didn’t want to get out of bed. And some days I had severe depression, and I asked God to just take me. I hated the radiation. Imagine having your head and shoulders strapped down with a mask for 30 minutes every day, unable to move. I took medicine to calm my nerves.

Wanting My Old Life

The worst part was the radiation burns. The skin on my neck was burnt off my neck where the flesh was exposed. My hair did fall out, but only around the sides and back.

The depression set in when I was losing a noticeable amount of weight, my skin was getting darker, and I had a feeding tube protruding through my clothes. I no longer felt like Kayla; I did not know who that person was. All I could think of was how bad I wanted to go back to my old life.

But God knew he wanted more for me, that I was stronger than I knew. I now know that the cancer journey helped me find my purpose. The fight showed me that I am strong, and I am an overcomer. Over the years, I had become so dependent on others that I had lost who I truly was.

Staying Positive, with Purpose

I met many amazing people during my treatments, people who inspired my fight and helped me smile. Some people told me I inspired them, because I was smiling often: I was just trying to stay positive.

This experience helped me realize how important purpose, love, and family are. At that moment, I needed my family more than ever. People who I thought would be there for me, had vanished. But my family was there all the way, in full force.

Before cancer, I had no real vision or purpose, I was just existing. Cancer helped me understand and incorporate mind over matter in every situation. On days when I was very depressed, I thought, “I’m not getting up today, I’m not taking my meds, I’m not moving.”

My dad helped me to realize that mind over matter is very beneficial. On days when I just slept, he would come into my room and make me get up and interact for a few minutes. He kept saying, “If you just sit there and think you can’t do it, then you won’t.”

Remember You’re in Control

How did I do it? There was no other option: fight was my only option, so I persevered, no matter how I felt. Often, I had flashes of the future, and how my kids’ life would be without me. I knew I wanted to watch them grow, so I couldn’t give up.

Always remember that you control your own destiny. No one can fight for you like you can. No one can advocate for you, but you. You must manifest everything into existence, while blocking all resistance. Believing in yourself and the outcome, rather than crying, which won’t change your situation.

Now I see life with a purpose. For so many years I thought I was weak and needed someone else to complete my happiness. Then I realized that all I needed was my faith and family.

I am not the person I was before cancer, and as much as I begged God to just give me my life back when I was fighting, this life-changing experience helped to mold me into the better mother, friend, daughter, and sister that I am today.

I still have side effects and aches and pains from the treatment, but I am stronger and wiser. Cancer made me grow up, wishing to live a purposeful life. I never want to go back to the old me. Now I am free to believe that prayer is powerful, and with God and mind over matter, all things are possible.

I hope to be able to inspire other people with cancer, especially young adults who think their life is over. Things won’t ever be the same, but you’ll come out stronger, wiser, inspired, and purposeful. Never give up!

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Last modified: March 10, 2022

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