"Cancer's Unexpected Blessings
"The Stansells feel extremely blessed that both Camryn and Emily are cancer survivors. As a parent who understands what the journey is all about, Angela felt the need to do something to help parents transition into the unexpected life change of having a child diagnosed with cancer. Angela and her daughters, along with Kelly Johnson of Easley, are cofounders of Project Golden Hope. This new organization is committed to serving the needs of pediatric cancer patients and their families in the Upstate of South Carolina."
"CHALLENGES" IS BROUGHT TO YOU IN PART BY
As parents, our hearts are full of so many dreams for our children as they grow up. Love, joy, fear, and hope seem to be common denominators in parenting for all of us. We love them unconditionally, joyfully cheer them on in their endeavors, fear for their wellbeing in a messy world, and continually maintain hope for their health and happiness. It’s tempting for parents to believe that we can somehow shield our children from life’s painful experiences. Angela Stansell will boldly tell you that one of those painful experiences, childhood cancer, is one thing you cannot always protect your children from.
Brett and Angela Stansell, and their three children, Camryn, Emily and Connor, live in Powdersville, South Carolina. Their story is nothing short of inspirational, as they have faced numerous health-related ordeals. Brett and Angela know all too well what it is like to endure the challenges of childhood cancer, not with one, but with two of their children. However, as Angela shared her story, she often emphasized God’s faithfulness to them and how she and her husband, Brett, learned that every challenge they faced had a blessing in disguise.
In 1999, Brett and Angela were blessed with the arrival of their first child, Camryn. Overjoyed with the gift of a beautiful baby girl, parenthood was a role the Stansells were more than ready to assume. She was a perfectly healthy infant with no obvious problems until she was eight months old. Angela, a medical-surgical intensive care nurse, felt something odd in Camryn’s abdomen. She explained, “I was nursing her one afternoon and I felt something in her belly.” She took Camryn to the pediatrician. He told Angela he needed x-rays and to everyone’s dismay, they found a cancerous mass. Within days, Camryn had the mass removed and the doctors confirmed that it was neuroblastoma. Neuroblastoma is a rare type of cancerous tumor that almost always affects children. It starts in the early nerve cells of the sympathetic nervous system in the fetus. In this rare disease, a solid tumor is formed by special nerve cells called neuroblasts. Normally, these immature cells grow into functioning nerve cells but in neuroblastoma, they become cancer cells instead.
After the removal of the tumor, Camryn’s pediatric cancer surgeon was very concerned because some contents of the tumor spilled back into her abdomen during surgery. However, since the tumor was confined, her doctors felt it had not metastasized, and prescribed no further treatments. They monitored her closely through scans and various other tests every three months.
Unfortunately, when Camryn was five years old, the tumor came back in the exact same place. The doctors were fearful that the cancer had returned and ordered a series of tests and scans. Angela remembered being with the doctor while they waited on the pathology report, “He cried when he told us that it was not cancer. He said that it was a miracle.” In a twist of fate, the tests showed that her body changed the cancer into something completely different. Sometimes, in very young children, these cancer cells can mature on their own into normal cells and stop dividing. This makes the tumor a ganglioneuroma, a benign tumor made up of mature ganglion and nerve sheath cells.
After Camryn had the benign tumor removed, she continued to be monitored by the pediatric oncologist until she was twelve years old. She didn’t have any further problems, which is a blessing because approximately a year after that point, her younger sister, Emily, eleven years old at the time, began the fight of her life.
Emily, the middle child of the Stansell family, was born in 2001. Unfortunately, Emily faced childhood cancer as well. Cancer is such a common disease, that it is no surprise that many families have at least a few members affected by it. Sometimes, certain types of cancer seem to run in some families. However, it was both devastating and unusual, when their middle child received a cancer diagnosis, one that was completely unrelated to the older sibling.
For the first ten years of Emily’s life, she experienced a healthy childhood. Even so, when Emily was eleven, she began having some symptoms that raised concerns. Emily began having extremely painful headaches. Angela explained, “At first I just thought she needed to have her eyes checked. But by Christmas time, the headaches had gotten so bad that she was lethargic, nauseous, and vomiting. She couldn’t do anything.” Emily visited the pediatrician three different times and tried numerous antibiotics for a sinus infection. She complained, “I asked for more testing because as a nurse, I knew something was not right. But the doctor didn’t see anything that warranted concern.” Angela’s motherly instincts, as well as her knowledge as a nurse, warned her that this was much more than a sinus headache.
Christmas morning of 2012 seemed to be a good day for Emily and Angela was encouraged that she seemed to be feeling better. It was short lived however, as the very next day, Emily was extremely ill. The Stansells rushed her to the emergency room, where they completed an eye exam and a cat scan on Emily. Angela said, “Brett and I sat there with Emily and then three doctors and three nurses walked into the room and I knew something was horribly wrong.” The doctors told Angela and Brett that Emily had a mass on her brain and they felt confident that it was cancer.
With very little time to process such devastating news, changes began happening quickly for the Stansells, and Emily was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit for immediate treatment. A three-hour MRI was completed to map her brain for surgery scheduled for the very next morning. The surgery lasted well over six hours. However, the doctor successfully removed all of the tumor, which was found in the cerebellar region of the brain. This is the area that affects balance and coordination. Because the tumor originated along the spinal column, her spinal fluid was tested. Fortunately, it was negative for cancer cells indicating that the cancer had not spread. Emily was in the pediatric intensive care unit for ten days. Amazingly, she went straight home from intensive care, without any complications or severe side effects, something that the doctors told Angela was extremely rare.
Biopsy results from Emily’s surgery showed the tumor was anaplastic medulloblastoma. Medulloblastoma is a cancerous brain tumor, most often found in children, that starts at the region of the brain at the base of the skull. The doctors put Emily on an experimental program consisting of thirty-one treatments of chemotherapy followed by high dose radiation to the brain. This meant that Emily had to receive this combination of treatments five days a week, for six weeks. Angela struggled to retell Emily’s experience. She declared, “That was the hardest time of my life.” Each day Emily went to the clinic first to receive her chemotherapy treatment. The radiation treatment immediately followed. She said, “We would have to take her in and watch them lay her down on the table and bolt her in a mask so she couldn’t move so she could get her radiation.” The purpose of the plastic mesh mask is to guide the radiation beams. The nurse fits the mask over a patient’s face and shoulders and then it is snapped down to keep the treatment area of the body in place for the radiotherapy machine. The situation was very stressful for Emily because she had to remain alone. The mask had little ventilation and she would become nauseous during treatments. The burning smell from the radiation to her head was very bothersome to Emily. She would often get very sick and the nurse would stop the treatment so she could recuperate from the nausea and receive some medication to help her finish. Angela explained, “When you are eleven years old, going through that every day was really hard. We had to promise her a puppy if she would get through all of the treatments.”
After Emily finished the combination treatments, she got a month break and then she started a six-month protocol of twenty-eight day cycles. The first three days of each cycle, Emily was admitted into the hospital and was given IV chemotherapy that had to be supported with fluids because it could be damaging to other organs. The high dose chemotherapy caused complications with Emily’s blood counts. Therefore, many times, this caused Emily extra visits to the hospital to receive antibiotics to help her body heal from bacterial or viral infections.
In September of 2013, Emily had almost completed her sixth month of chemotherapy treatment. It was no surprise that the treatments would be harder as they continued. Angela had been warned by the nurses that her last treatment would be her toughest due to the cumulative effect of chemotherapy. However, they weren’t prepared for the complications of the last treatment that almost took Emily’s life. With an extremely weak immune system, Emily contracted a particularly dangerous strand of bacteria and her body could not fight off infection. Emily was admitted to intensive care. Angela stated, “I know the chemo had to be done to catch any straggling cells that couldn’t be seen. Because it was such an aggressive type of cancer and aggressive type of tumor, they had to kill everything or it would have come back for sure. But, it literally almost killed her too and it was terrifying.”
After Emily spent time recovering in the intensive care unit, she was officially finished with her cancer treatments. Her first request was to go to Disney World with her family. It was a celebration trip, and Angela said that a very weak but determined Emily was excited to go despite being in a wheel chair the entire time.
Emily finished up some experimental drugs in March of 2014 and has not needed any new medication since then. Emily’s doctors have monitored her condition with an MRI every three months, and so far, every MRI scan has been clear. In November of 2016, her doctors moved them to every six months. Emily has made tremendous progress.
I asked Angela how her family made it through such a difficult time in their life. She replied that it was their family’s faith in God. Angela said that she leaned heavily on her faith and the words of encouragement that came from her daily devotional readings. While her husband Brett, did a lot of cancer research as a way to cope, Angela was always nervous to read about the experiences of other families. She said, “I didn’t want to do a lot of online reading because I didn’t feel like either one of my children would end up being like one of the children in the stories. They were Camryn and Emily and I knew their situation would be different. No two situations are the same. I just put all my trust and faith in God.” Angela acknowledged, “Once I realized I wasn’t in control, and it took a while, but once I handed it over to Him, I had complete peace and I knew everything was going to be okay.”
Angela and Brett had further confirmation from their son that Emily was going to recover. Their youngest child, Connor, who was a first grader at the time of Emily’s diagnosis, was a special source of support. Angela remembers back to the devastating night when they were overwhelmed with the news of Emily’s diagnosis. Connor handed her a note. Angela explained, “Conner said that he had talked to God about Emily and God wanted him to write this note to me.” Scribbled in his first-grade handwriting were the words that said, “Emily is going to be fine and she is going to live a long, healthy life.” Angela said tearfully, “I still hold on to that note.”
Connor wasn’t the only one that seemed to have great assurance of Emily’s future. Angela remembers asking Emily how she was feeling about her diagnosis. Angela said, “I asked her why she wasn’t afraid and she said she had faith because God had told her everything was going to be okay.” Angela explained that even when the cancer treatments took a toll on Emily, she was never fearful. She looked very different, having lost a lot of weight, and even though she was quiet and withdrawn at times during her treatment, she explained that Emily was never afraid. As a matter of fact, she often had a smile on her face and was very positive. Angela and Brett held on to Connor’s note, Emily’s words, and their family’s deep rooted faith to battle feelings of hopelessness during this time.
The Stansells feel extremely blessed that both Camryn and Emily are cancer survivors. As a parent who understands what the journey is all about, Angela felt the need to do something to help parents transition into the unexpected life change of having a child diagnosed with cancer. Angela and her daughters, along with Kelly Johnson of Easley, are cofounders of Project Golden Hope. This new organization is committed to serving the needs of pediatric cancer patients and their families in the Upstate of South Carolina. When parents learn that their child has cancer, their family is immediately thrown into chaos and their lives are forever altered. Many times, children are immediately admitted to the hospital setting at diagnosis and families are forced to alter their living arrangements with very little lead time. The organization assists the families by providing comfort, essential need items, support, and resources. An ongoing project is the preparation and delivery of special canvas bags with essential items for parents of children who are newly diagnosed with cancer. Anglea said, “When you get that diagnosis you can’t think. People want to help and you can’t tell them what you need. Project Golden Hope tries to put necessary things in these bags.” Angela continued, “We work on the bags all year long, but September is childhood cancer awareness month. We have a pageant then because so many people who donate items for the bags want to support research for childhood cancer.” Last year, the Miss Golden Hope Pageant raised $5000 and the pageant proceeds went to St. Baldricks. Every little bit helps, since national funding for childhood cancer is less than 4%.
Every child deserves to beat cancer and have a bright future restored. At the present, Emily is back in school full time, a high school cheerleader, enjoys competing in pageants, and recently bought her first car. Camryn, looking forward to high school graduation, recently found out she is bound for Clemson University, a family tradition. Both daughters share a common desire to go into nursing. Conner, a sixth grader, can play several instruments and is quite the entertainer. All three children are musically gifted and share their talents frequently in their church.
The Stansells feel that blessings can arrive in unexpected ways, even amid a health crisis such as theirs. Angela said, “We’ve chosen to live it as a blessing. It can be a bad thing or it can be a blessing.” Angela and Brett believe that because of their dependence on God, He not only gave them the strength to endure, but restored the health of their children, and is now providing opportunities for them to minister to others. She added, “If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change anything. I like the saying where God gives His toughest battles to His strongest soldiers. I would like to think we are some of His strongest soldiers and I hope what we are doing is pleasing to Him.” Indeed, the Stansells are very strong soldiers, turning the suffering of their past into support and inspiration for families now and for many years to come.
Heather Reeves, Challenges Column Contributor
Heather Reeves, a 5th grade language arts teacher, lives & works in her hometown of Liberty, SC. She is a graduate of Clemson University & her family enjoys cheering for the Clemson Tigers. Heather also enjoys gardening, crafting, traveling, & spending time with her husband and daughter.