Reprinted from the November 17th, 1999 issue of the Courier

Young Mother Battles Cancer With Attitude

By MARGARET DWIGGINS
Staff Writer

 

Just about a year ago, 23-year old Carla Epperson gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Her future seemed to be mapped out with caring for her new baby and her 3-year-old daughter. Little did Carla know that her life was about to take a devastating detour.

When it came time for her six-week check-up, Carla reported to her doctor that she was still experiencing cramps so severe they caused her to double over in pain. An infection was suspected, but two rounds of antibiotics failed to rid Carla of her symptoms. Further tests revealed the unthinkable -- the young mother had a grapefruit-sized tumor hiding behind her uterus, and it was cancerous.

Doctors believe the tumor began growing in the last weeks of Carla's pregnancy, although the cancer did not affect her baby's health. Removing the tumor entailed a full hysterectomy, an appendectomy and the removal of a section of Carla's bowel.

Carla was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as germ cell cancer of the ovary, which is not considered ovarian cancer, according to Carla's local oncologist, Dr. Sharon Cole. It is rare for women to get this type of cancer, as it mostly strikes men as testicular cancer.

Initial treatments left Carla unable to care for her baby boy, Brady, and her daughter, Marissa. Her mother, Susie Malone, took a leave of absence from her job at a local nursing home to take care of Carla and her family.

After two more surgeries and nine weeks of chemotherapy, there was finally some good news for Carla -- it looked like the cancer had been eradicated. In May, Carla returned to work. But six weeks later the roller coaster ride started again. A CAT scan revealed the presence of three more tumors.

In September, Carla went to the Cleveland Clinic for a stem cell transplant, a procedure similar to a bone marrow transplant. Healthy cells are removed from the patient and frozen. The patient then receives high doses of chemotherapy to kill the cancerous cells before the healthy cells are recirculated into the patient.

Carla endured the treatment as best as could be expected, although the chemotherapy made her sick and she was not able to keep solid food down for nearly a month.

Again, her situation looked promising, but Carla was in for another major setback.

During her stay at the Cleveland Clinic, she got out of bed one night and crashed to the floor.

"My legs were numb, and I couldn't push myself up," Carla recalled. Her legs were not just numb -- they were paralyzed.

It was determined that Carla had developed Guilllain-Barre' Syndrome, a rare nerve disorder which causes weakness and paralysis.

Instead of returning home, Carla required a lengthy hospital stay at St. Rita's in Lima for intense physical therapy.

"I had to relearn everything (including how to walk)," Carla said.

Finally able to return home just a few weeks ago, Carla was nearly unrecognizable as her former self. She lost her hair as well as eyebrows and eyelashes to weeks of chemotherapy and a dark red stain had appeared on her hands.

Still weak from the Guillain-Barre', she required the use of a walker or wheelchair to navigate through her house.

"I couldn't even pick up my boy," Carla said.

For now, Carla seems to be improving. She is slowly getting feeling back in her legs, and she is regaining her ability to walk.

Carla's ordeal has given her a wisdom uncommon in most mothers her age.

"You can't just stop -- you can't stop loving your kids or tell yourself not to get too close," Carla said.

Instead, she makes the most of every day.

"If I do die, my kids will remember me as being strong and successful -- that's what I want them to tell people," she said.

Both of Carla's children celebrate birthdays this month. Marissa turned 4 on Nov. 10 and Brady's first birthday is Nov. 19.

Although Carla's Guillain-Barre' symptoms are improving, she is still not able to take care of herself and her children.

"My mom has been taking care of me and my two kids," Carla said. Her voice choking, she added, "you don't expect people to be like this for you. It's wonderful."

Even though she is immensely appreciative of her mother's help, asking for help is not an easy thing for Carla.

"I'm used to being on my own, to be independent."

Although Carla has Medicaid coverage, the family has still been financially devastated. Carla has not been able to work for many months, and her mother's income stopped when she took her leave of absence from work.

Carla's stepfather, David Malone, organized a successful fund-raiser for Carla with help from his Teamster colleagues, and Patty Weaver, a close friend of Susie's, has organized local fund-raising drives for Carla. Several businesses throughout the area have allowed Patty to leave donation cans for Carla and her children in their stores, and response has been generous, Patty said. Patty also organized a fund-raising party for Carla, which will be held Nov. 20 at the Day's Inn.

But perhaps Carla's most significant benefactor is one who saw to her emotional well-being. While undergoing outpatient therapy, Carla was befriended by another cancer patient named Sylvia. The two women developed a close friendship, and Carla came to rely on Sylvia's moral support when her treatments were difficult.

The last time Carla saw her friend was when Sylvia dropped by to wish Carla luck before one of her surgical procedures. Sylvia, a lymphoma patient, died a short time later.

Sylvia helped Carla develop a positive outlook through her illness.

Carla told her mother, "She (Sylvia) made me strong. Now I'm here to make other people strong, like Sylvia."

Sylvia's attitude is evident in Carla.

"I don't pity myself and I don't want anyone to pity me," Carla said. "I can't say I wish I never got cancer -- I think God gave it to me for a reason. I'm strong and I can help others."

Like her daughter, Susie now looks at life quite differently.

"You only live one day at a time. Even if she's in remission, it's still in our heads. It's a devastating disease."

Susie is in awe of the transformation of her daughter's attitude.

"She used to say, 'why me?' Now she says, 'why not me?'"