When she got the diagnosis, and found out she would lose her long hair, she cried.
“I was a hair person,” she recalls. “I love my hair!” Eight months later, treatment is over, her hair is just growing back — and it looks so great, she’s thinking about keeping it short.
Cancer has changed Kayla Rodriguez, 17, in other ways, too.
“I feel like if I could get through this, nothing is hard,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll complain about schoolwork and then think, this isn’t bad.”
Pain in her throat and neck
It was the summer of 2017 when Kayla noticed something might be wrong. During a family trip to Ecuador, to visit her grandma, she kept feeling pains in her throat and neck sharp enough to make her cry. And a lump appeared on her neck.
During repeated trips to emergency rooms and doctors, in Ecuador and the United States after their return, doctors kept telling Kayla and her parents that the lump was a sign she was fighting an infection. They put her on antibiotics. Blood work showed no problem.
Finally, after three months with no improvement, she saw an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor), who was concerned and biopsied the lump. He called the family a few days later, on Nov. 6, and told them Kayla had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and recommended they go to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
Kayla and her parents, Karen and Edward, were shocked by the diagnosis. Kayla had just started learning about cancer in her anatomy and physiology class at school — she never imagined she’d be facing a diagnosis.
Within a few days, the family met with Vandana Batra, MD, an oncologist at CHOP, who explained that Kayla would have to undergo four 21-day cycles of chemotherapy.
Her parents were reassured after the meeting. “Whenever we needed an answer, we got it,” Karen says. “They care, and you can tell.”
The good news: No inpatient stay would be required for the chemo. All treatments could be administered at the CHOP Specialty Care & Surgery Center in Voorhees, NJ, closer to their Haddon Township home.
Medical team, fashion consultants
The chemotherapy was delivered through a port in Kayla’s skin. The infusions took from three to eight hours — which meant Kayla was spending a lot of time with the Voorhees staff. She soon felt they were like family. “I love them all,” she says, of the doctors, nurses, child life specialists and social worker there.
As she sat in the infusion chair, she talked with them about school, friends, and how she was feeling. She shopped on her iPad for a prom dress, and everyone had a hard time picking the best one. “Every time they’d come in and be like, ‘Oh that’s cute, you should get that one.’ Then they’d see another one and it was, “Oh wait, get that one.’”
Kayla lost her hair in December. She tried a wig for one day, and decided she felt OK without it. She had to miss a lot of school because of being at risk for infections. Through it all, friends and family, along with the CHOP staff, helped keep her upbeat.
Kayla had to be less active through treatment. She found comfort with her cats, Fizzle and Jasmine, and sisters, Lila, 7, and Marissa, 13, who waited on her and researched lymphoma, reassuring her that she would recover. Her teachers met her at the local library to help her keep up with schoolwork, and guidance counselors and field hockey coaches reached out to check on her and visit. Her friends came over to watch movies, and helped their athletic friend enjoy less active pursuits such as drawing, beading and crocheting. “I’m still working on that blanket,” Kayla says.
Throughout, CHOP helped the family stay as normal as possible. For example, their oncologist gave permission for the family to take a pre-planned Disney trip in the midst of treatment. “It felt great to get away from everything,” Kayla recalls.
Influencing her future
Finally, in February, she had her last treatment. She’s been swimming to stay strong, and hopes to return to field hockey and track next school year, her senior year. She’s thinking about the future — her experience at CHOP solidified her interest in becoming a child life specialist.
She has appointments and scans to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned every three months in Voorhees, and will continue to go there for the next few years. “There are no words to explain how amazing CHOP is,” Kayla says. “I feel like they’re family. I miss seeing them all the time, and when I see them, it’s great.”