updated 10/10/2013 AT 11:00 AM ET
•originally published 10/10/2013 AT 5:30 PM ET
After successfully battling ovarian cancer for the second time and sharing her journey on PEOPLE.com, Diem Brown is back to blogging. This time around, she will not only share updates on her own life, but about competing on her new show, MTV’s The Challenge: Rivals II.
Twitter is a really amazing way to stay up-to-date on everything from your friends’ lives to national and local news, from breaking stories to entertainment. Twitter can also have the power of immediate communication with people you have never met. Sometimes the comments can be nasty, but sometimes Twitter can bring strangers together in magical ways!
This amazing cancer fighter, Kelli, has been Tweeting me since 2008 and over the summer had asked if I would come visit her at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. I had never been to St. Jude, but, like most, have seen and been moved by their commercials and the power of their mission. This past week, I had my first visit to this truly inspirational and hope-giving hospital.
I think most of us have become so skeptical about believing what we hear on TV. But after my daylong tour, I discovered St. Jude Hospital truly gives families hope and life-saving treatment without a bill. They want all the focus to go toward helping kids get better while keeping as much normalcy as possible in those kids’ lives.
I was going to write Kelli’s story, but after receiving her email, I was blown away by what a powerful writer she is. So, read below and get ready to be inspired beyond belief at the fight this girl has in her!
P.S.: Justin Bieber, if you are reading, Kelli would love to meet you! She thinks y’all share the same love for “swag” style. :)
Kelli’s Story, in Her Own Words
Everyone encounters life-changing moments. When these moments happen, we can either embrace the experience while taking advantage of the opportunity or we can choose to neglect them. In 2008, while only a senior in high school, I began my journey with the most tremendous life-changing experience anyone could have ever imagined.
It begins the morning of Oct. 22, 2008. I was lying in a hospital bed getting ready to take a bed-bath. I had a simple procedure the previous day – minor surgery for a cyst removal. As the water became lukewarm, the nurse attended to my bandages. Being assured of a 2-inch incision, I was shocked to discover I had been cut from hip to hip and up the middle to my chest. Feeling almost like Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, I asked what had happened. My only thoughts were it was either a patient mix-up, surgeon mix-up or even them stealing my kidney to sell on the black market. It never crossed my mind that the doctor would discover a football-size tumor that weighed almost 4 pounds! When the dreaded word "cancer" rolled off his tongue it was almost as if I had entered a living nightmare and everything started to zone out afterward.
Not even two weeks later, I found myself walking in Memphis, more specifically at St. Jude. I had been officially diagnosed with a rare cancer, liposarcoma. Being only the third patient at St. Jude to have been diagnosed with this, I embarked on the ultimate fight for my life. My treatments called for some of the most dangerous and strongest chemotherapy – putting my body to the brink of death. Along with the chemo I would undergo eight weeks of radiation. Over the next seven months, I endured restless nights, countless blood transfusions, never-ending vomiting spells, fatigue, the loss of friends and patients around me, and the list goes on. Every day I would wake up and not know what to expect. Would I spend the day sick over the toilet? Would I have to spend the night at the hospital for a blood transfusion? Is the pain going to go away today? Every day posed a different question and every day was a different battle. Some battles were honorably lost, but I won the war when I finished treatments in May of 2009 and still managed to walk across the stage with my class to graduate high school.
Shortly after graduating, I built some strength back and got a job at a local pet store. I took my doctors’ advice and took a year off before college. When 2010 finally hit, I was more than ecstatic to start filling out applications. I finally felt like everything was going back to normal – until July 2010. I was at St. Jude for a check-up. I was initially reassured that I was cancer-free and not in need of another check-up for four months. However, a doctor who wasn t even affiliated with St. Jude failed to see these optimistic results. Minutes turned into hours and hours into days, it seemed. The doctors finally saw me after the agonizing wait. As they walked through the door, they filled the room with sorrow and disappointment and continued to explain that my cancer had come back. It was a step back, but I continued on with my head held high like any soldier would do.
This time I was only in Memphis for approximately seven weeks of radiation treatment, post-tumor removal. The only thing I could do when I finished was to get right back on the horse, and that’s exactly what I did. I started work, I finally started school, I finally moved out, I finally became independent, I finally got my life back. February 2012 was another adventure back to St. Jude for what I thought was a simple check-up. I was cleared by the doctor and sent on my way home. With a smile on my face I sat in the airplane waiting for takeoff. Oddly, my phone rang. My doctor called, again with sorrow and disappointment in her voice, and asked for my immediate return.
It wouldn’t be so easy this time. After another surgery for biopsies of the tumor, I was regrettably told even worse news: It had attached itself to vital blood vessels and half my liver. My liver could regenerate whereas the blood vessels could not. The surgeon would only be able to remove at most 85 percent of the tumor. He only agreed to do that if a third round of radiation would be administered, which is generally not recommended. You could say they all looked at me as they would a ghost. They knew my time was coming up and it was only a matter of buying me more time. I hadn’t come this far for nothing, so I pushed for more chemotherapy and more radiation. If at first you don t succeed, try again. If you don t succeed again, the third time is the charm.
The doctors cleverly collaborated to create a slightly different plan: They would administer chemotherapy in hopes of shrinking the tumor, then surgically remove it followed by six weeks of radiation. Again, this time would not be so easy. Instantaneously, I had to stop the chemotherapy due to chemo poison. It was doing too much damage to my body. With chemo out of the equation, I was left with surgery and radiation. Before the surgery, the scans showed that the chemo was indeed working. It showed a slight decrease in the mass size, but also no doubt the mass was still there and still intact.
The doctors and I went in that day and prepared for a 10-hour surgery. I awoke to faces with tears in their eyes. I didn’t know what was going on but the energy was different. I didn t feel the sorrow and disappointment like I had before. Instead I felt relief and happiness. Then I saw my dad smile and I knew something went right and everything was okay: The tumor was nowhere to be found and had vanished! A miracle was given to me by the Lord himself.
I still proceeded with radiation even though I knew I was completely healed. I then applied at another college hoping for some scholarships. I got just the scholarship I needed: a full ride. I couldn t wait to start school again and get life back on track.
May of 2013 had finally rolled around: the month of my 22nd birthday, the last of a few weeks before summer school started – and the month I was diagnosed for a fourth time. I had so much trouble with the tumor my previous round I knew I was in for it this time. The doctors could remove the tumor by surgery, but they didn’t want to. They would only remove the tumor if they could "mop up" my insides with another dose of radiation. Chemo is out of the question due to the severe poisoning I had endured the last time. My radiologist said, "Kelli, you’re a strong girl and durable. I think I can administer another round of radiation concentrated in your focused area." Always a pleasure to hear when one’s self is "durable." Just like the third time, it wouldn’t be so easy with the fourth. With the surgeries plus radiation, my body wasn’t like it once used to be. Also, with the tumor being where it was this time, removing it wouldn’t be an easy task. I faced a 95 percent chance of a permanent colostomy if I chose to remove the cancer.
The doctors sent me home for a month to think about this critical decision. On one hand I wouldn’t have to live the rest of my life with a bag attached to my side to void my bowels. On the other hand, I refused to just let cancer finally win. I certainly didn’t fight to come this far and give up. I went back headstrong about my decision and prepared for a major life change. The surgeon wasn’t so enthusiastic about my choice. He even offered for me to go back home for two more months to wait and see if the tumor would become stable. It was almost as if he did not want me to take the risk. Ultimately, it was my decision. I was NOT going to go back home to sit and worry about cancer or death. Now is not a time to think but to act and fight while I feel so well. I remember I told him with a smile on my face and confidence in my voice, "Doc, my credit card is maxed out, I have no money in the bank, and my gas tank is empty. I’d have nothing to do anyway: Let’s do this."
I woke to such a horror. The most terrible thing had happened. While I was sleeping the nurses printed and taped Arkansas football signs all over me and my bed. Being an Alabama football fan, seeing that was a nightmare. I thought I had died and gone to hell. As far as my tumor, it was a success. It had been removed, and that five percent chance of being normal afterward with no colostomy was in my favor. Once more, I received another miracle. I followed up with seven weeks of radiation and continued to fight like the soldier you all now know me to be.
My journey didn’t stop there. It has yet to stop even today. That was only the beginning. You see, I don’t view it as a disease but as an opportunity to take advantage of knowledge and experience. Along the way, over the past four years, I found who I was: a vigorous person with a story to tell and lives to change.
Holding On to Hope
Reading Kelli’s story really moved me. She is the epitome of someone who never lets hope slip away from her spirit! If you would like to help other patients like Kelli at St. Jude, click here to make a donation.
P.S.: Thank you for all your emails. I am really excited to share what I have been working on for y’all for the past three weeks! I think it will help bridge the huge gap for those going through hardship to get the answers and relief they are looking for. If you have a health-related question or a story you would like to share, please email me at AskDiem@medgift.com. I am beyond excited about the new format this blog will be taking, and I hope y’all will like it, too!