Lena Spotleson grew up with a heart for competition and hunger to win.
A dull stomach pain sprouted in the summer of 2006. Test after test and doctor visit after visit with no solution to this aching problem. As a young athlete and teammate, her tenacity and scrappiness, helped her from mentally giving up. She continued to demand answers from doctors for the pain she was going through.
Lena was faced with the biggest battle she will ever face; her fight to live. She went to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her month-new husband expecting the same non-answers, until she finally got one that made her heart sink.
The doctor approached them slowly to say, “Lena, you have cancer, and I’m going to show you why. You won’t be able to have children after this, and we need to get you into surgery right away.”
The following week, confident and ready to get this surgery going, Lena was once again blind-sided. A surgery that was supposed to take 3 hours, took them 7 because the surgeons kept finding and cutting more cancer out of her body. First they took her uterus, then her cervix, followed by her ovary, gallbladder, appendix, and finally a handful of lymph nodes.
Her family was told by the doctor, “it’s really bad, we had to take a lot more and wash out her body.”
The next day Lena found out that she had stage 4 cancer, with a 25% chance to live. This meant an extremely aggressive chemotherapy and radiation plan if she had any shot at beating this.
Her first chemotherapy treatment was in a secluded private area. A thumbtack-thick needle was pushed into her chest where a chemo port was surgically inserted only a few days beforehand. The clear yellow bag of fluids above her said DANGER with a picture of skull and crossbones. Eight and a half hours later, she walked out of her first chemo treatment.
Lena’s hair began to fall out soon after. On the day of her 1-year wedding anniversary, her husband shaved her head while in a hotel by Disneyland, where they went to celebrate despite the doctors and everyone else’s opinion.
It was at this time that Lena reached out to the American Cancer Society. She learned about programs; Hope Lodge which provides free housing for people in need, Road to Recovery which provides free rides to and from treatment and Look Good Feel Better which does just that. Lena was determined to return the favor, when she got healthy, and help others who were in her same shoes.
The next few months were a blur. Chemo treatments, doctor’s appointments, radiation appointments, people visiting, people crying, nights in the ER, people not knowing what to say and her family not knowing if Lena would survive. Her body was weak. She was nauseous 24 hours a day and could barely walk to the end of her street for exercise.
“Through it all, not once did I think that I wouldn’t make it.” – Lena, Cancer Survivor
The last day of November, that year, was a dark one when Lena became the sickest. Her husband rushed her to the hospital for fluids after uncontrollable vomiting, only for them to be stuck there for hours not getting control over her fever or nausea. In the ugency to figure out what was wrong, the doctors gave her a blood culture test, which takes about two days for results.
Her doctor called to say, “Lena you have an infection, we don’t know what it is, you need to get back to the hospital immediately.”
As Lena walked up to the hospital room with her husband, she began to have chest pain. The nurse laid her on the bed and put a blood pressure cuff on her. Her blood pressure was 40 over 20 before she blacked-out, going into septic shock. This happens when you have an infection in your body and if it reaches your blood stream, can cause organ failure and death.
She was put on a ventilator, in a drug-induced coma for 10 straight days. Her family was told that she wouldn’t make it so every person she loved was in the ICU waiting room to take turns being at her side.
Being the underdog, Lena always showed up and played to win. Despite every blow or how far down she was, Lena went hard until the horn blew and this time it wasn’t any different.
Lena received her first clear scan - cancer free - in January of 2007. Treatment was finally over. She attributes her resiliency to all the things she learned as a young athlete.
“I was going to fight until the game was over or until there was nothing left in me to fight.” - Lena, Cancer Survivor
Lena, now works for the American Cancer Society and is a high school basketball coach of over 16 years, she is not just teaching her girls the strategy and skill of the game, she’s preparing them for life and things they will have to face in their futures.
“No matter what you face in life, you take that challenge head-on and if I can come back from almost death, you can come back from anything.” - Lena, Cancer Survivor
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