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‘I don’t feel like cancer defines me’

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By Camille McClanahan

In May 2009, Rebecca Ailstock, was just beginning her nursing career, a life-long dream to work in the medical field.

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Ailstock, a 2005 graduate of Grant County High School, started Northern Kentucky University, in the fall semester, right after graduation.

“I graduated in four years, because I took classes during the summer, so that I could keep up with the four-year thing,” she said. “I really wanted to get in and get out.”

Everything went as planned, but while still in nursing school, she noticed that her hands weren’t as steady as they once were, which led to an magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“I went to Dr. (Gary) Melton because I was having tremors in my hands,”Ailstock said. “I didn’t want to go in a patients room and try to start an I.V. and have them think, ‘she’s shaking, she’s nervous,’ you know.’

While spending the weekend with out of town friends, she was caught off guard when the doctor called her on her cell phone and told her that the results showed a lesion in the right frontal lobe of her brain.

The doctor offered some possibilities such as Multiple Sclerosis or even a brain tumor. He told her not to be too worried at this stage and that she needed another MRI with contrast to show more definitive things.

She had additional MRIs, one, three and six months later, while the doctor’s tried to hone in on a diagnosis. In the mean time she endured a spinal tap, blood tests and eye tests to rule out MS. Ominously, the MRI in the sixth month showed that the lesions had grown, which led the doctor to believe this was more characteristic of a tumor.

She then was referred to an oncologist.

All the while, she continued her studies and told no one at school about the health issues she was dealing with until she participated in a leadership training class near graduation.

“I kind of opened up to them (her classmates) about it,” she said. “Until that time, even my best friend didn’t know. I felt better about getting it out there, since it was getting more serious.”

Immediately after graduation, she had her first interview with St. Elizabeth Hospital. By June, she had started her career as a registered nurse working in their Transitional Care Unit (TCU) of St. Elizabeth Hospital in Edgewood.

“I knew that I really liked the cardiac stuff my senior year, because we did the EKG training,” she said with her eyes widening. “I love it, I knew that I wanted to work on the TCU. We get a lot of people with a possible heart attack and people who have a cardiac history.”

Tumors are graded on a scale of one through four, one and two being benign (noncancerous) and three and four cancerous, which have to be treated with chemotherapy and or radiation. She would need a biopsy.

“In November 2009, I had to take time off work, which I hated to do,” she said. “You know, I’m new, it’s my first six months, I need the time there to learn my skills and I ended up taking six weeks off.”

She had a 3 inch incision where they removed a piece of her skull and used a needle to biopsy the tumor. Several samples of the tumor were analyzed and each one came back in the low-grade scale.

But the tumor had grown and the doctor recommended it be removed, which meant a full craniotomy and this time analysis of the tumor came back in the cancerous range.

During all this time her father, the Rev. Willie Ailstock, an army chaplain, was serving in Iraq. She and her mother, Becky Ailstock, in consultation with her doctors, decided to wait until January, when her father could be with the family.

She had no symptoms of what was growing in her head—no headaches, no vomiting, which are often associated with brain tumors. And the symptom that led her to get treatment, the tremors in her hands, turned out not to be a symptom after all, but a non-related, genetic occurrence.

“Mom says that Dr. Melton saved my life, because, it turned out that those tremors had nothing to do with that tumor,” she said. “I still have them even after all of this. That is why it took so long to figure it out, because I wasn’t having the (typical) symptoms of a tumor.”

On Jan. 29, 2010, she underwent surgery at University of Cincinnati Hospital. The tumor was located almost in the middle of her head near the area that controls motor skills. The surgery was done in an MRI suite, where they kept checking how much they could remove without leaving her permanently paralyzed.

The surgery was a success, but left her with 20 staples across her head and a shocking awareness.

“When I woke up from surgery, I couldn’t move my whole left side, I couldn’t even move a finger. So going from—I might need some physical therapy—to being completely paralyzed was, I’m sure really scary for my family.”

Three days after surgery, she was scheduled to be moved to a rehabilitation center and the gravity of her condition really hit her.

“I was ready to get out of that bed, but I couldn’t move,” she said. “I couldn’t sit up by myself. It was horrible.”

But when her insurance carrier wouldn’t approve the move, she broke down.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I just wanted to be able to get out of bed. I just said, ‘I’ve got to get up; I’ve got to do something.’ So, two physical therapists came in that night and sat me up on the edge of the bed. I could only sit there for probably 30 seconds with both of them holding me up.”

The next day, she was moved to Gateway Rehabilitation Center to work. The left side of her body was paralyzed, her hand turned in and clenched in a fist and her foot turned in.

“I remember getting into the ambulance,” she said. “As soon as I got out the door it smelled like fumes of the city, and you know, I know it sounds crazy, but it just felt so good to be out of that room.”

“It’s good for me to remember, because only when you remember those things, you know how blessed you are.”

At Gateway, she felt better about the apartment-like ambience of her room, and a visit from her physical therapist literally got her on her feet that very day.

“She stood me up, just her—that one girl, tiny, 110 pounds, probably 5 foot 2,” Ailstock said. —It just felt so good, I said—’thank you.’”

Ailstock spent three and a half weeks at Gateway, doing four hours of therapy daily.

“I just worked and worked and worked,” she said. “It took the longest for my leg. The farthest part from your brain is what takes the longest to recover.”

Finally, she was on her feet, but this was just round one of the fight. Then came chemotherapy and radiation.

Toward the last six months she was “wiped out” by her treatments and had to take some time off work.

Through sharing her story with the family member of a patient, she met a kindred spirit—a young woman, 28-years-old, going to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where she was going on the same day, getting the same clinical trial,.

“I admire her so much, because she still has so many deficits,” she said. “She has such a great attitude and is so brave. It’s a special bond, because we share the things that nobody else understands, you know. To have chemo-brain—where we can’t remember anything, or that our nose constantly runs. Little things that people just don’t understand.”

Ailstock believes that her experience helps her to have more compassion for her patients.

“We have a lot of patients that aren’t able to move because they have had strokes, or they aren’t able to talk and voice what they need and I feel like I was compassionate before all this, but I have so much more to give them and so much more to share with them,” she said. “I’m not afraid to share it, but I don’t feel like cancer defines me.”

When her hair fell out because of her treatments, she didn’t dwell on her loss.

“I didn’t care that my hair was falling out in clumps and clogged up the shower drain,” she said. “I was just happy that I was able to stand up in the shower and able to wash it with two hands. I didn’t really mourn the loss of my hair, at that time. I just thought, it will grow back. I never wore the scarfs, I just thought ‘be bald and be proud!”

Recently pronounced, “in remission,” Ailstock said she is grateful to everyone who participated in her care. She also said she realizes that people really don’t know how to help someone going through a serious illness, but that the simplest things mean a lot.

“Just people being there saying, ‘I’m praying for you,’ she said. “Cards—I’ve got every single card that I’ve gotten since the day I had surgery. I go through and re-read those cards to get my inspiration; that’s huge.”

She said that encouraging words are a source of strength.

“You don’t feel like you’re strong, so just for people to tell you that you are, makes it a little bit easier,” Ailstock said.

Since she is out of crisis mode, she admits that she’s beginning to miss her hair, which is starting to grow back.

“Now, I miss my hair sometimes—having it long, tucking it behind my ear and putting it in a pony tail, just blow drying it,” she said. “I haven’t used a curling iron in almost two years. You miss those things.”

Although, she said she still has “some deficits,” she is happy to be able to wear her contact lenses again, which she had to put aside because of her treatments. She is singing and playing the piano and has never stopped being a nurse in the TCU.

“I knew that God had placed me in that unit for a reason,” she said. “My managers have just been amazing about everything, working with me through chemo. They let me have the weeks off when I was sick.”

While some might ask, ‘why me?’ Ailstock has embraced her experience, which has only served to deepen her faith.

“I just trust God so much more now,” she said. “My motto is you cannot plan your life, you can only prepare for what God wants you to do. I feel like I was very prepared. I had this medical background and a wonderful Christian family. God prepared me my whole life for what was going to happen to me.”