Young Survivor Has a Message for Other Cancer Patients

Written By:Stacy Simon

"Even though cancer has you, just remember that cancer doesn't control your happiness or your life."

Ana Rodriguez

Ana Rodriguez is only 19 years old, but she is already a 2-time, 5-year cancer survivor. Now she wants to inspire other young cancer patients with her story. Her message: “Even though cancer has you, just remember that cancer doesn’t control your happiness or your life.”

Ovarian cancer

At age 14, Rodriguez noticed her stomach appeared lopsided and felt hard to the touch. Her doctor ordered tests including an ultrasound and MRI, which revealed a large tumor in one of her ovaries. She and her parents were shocked and scared. Doctors at the children’s hospital in Atlanta where Rodriguez was treated told them that even though ovarian cancer mainly affects older women, young girls sometimes get it, too.

In addition to their fears for her life, Rodriguez and her parents also worried she could lose the ability to ever have children. Doctors had warned that depending on the size and location of the tumor, they might have to remove both her ovaries. They discussed the possibility of freezing her eggs, but that would take several months, and she needed surgery right away. In April 2010, surgeons removed a 10-pound tumor and one ovary, meaning Rodriguez should still be able to have children if she wants to some day.

She says she got through her ordeal by assuring herself that everything was going to be OK. And it was, at least for a while. A week after her surgery, Rodriguez, then in 8th grade, was able to return to class. Everything returned to normal and she describes herself as having been “a regular teenager.” She graduated from high school and was admitted to the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she planned to study fashion marketing and management, and one day become a fashion buyer.

The cancer returns

But in the summer of 2014, tests during a regular follow-up visit revealed another tumor, this time in her colon. “When the doctor came in and told me it was cancer, I literally was in tears,” said Rodriguez. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t imagine it would come back, but it did.” She went back to the children’s hospital for surgery and 3 rounds of chemotherapy. She feared losing her hair, and decided to shave it so she wouldn’t have to watch it fall out.

“At first, I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to see myself without hair,” said Rodriguez. “But it turned out to be liberating. A lot of girls think hair is all there is to their appearance. But people saw more to me than just my hair when they saw my bald head. Some people asked, ‘why’ and I was able to share my story, which made me feel better. I don’t want people to feel bad or sad for me.”

Rodriguez took her positive message with her to other young patients in the hospital. She visited their rooms and drew pictures on their whiteboards. “The nurses told me one 14-year-old liked music, so I drew musical notes. I drew something special for each patient so they would know that someone knew what they were going through.”

She began taking her college classes online, but her brain just wouldn’t work right – one of the potential side effects from chemo – and she had to drop them. “That was sad for me, because I was excited to go to college and my friends were all going to college, and then I had to withdraw,” said Rodriguez. “But later I thought of it as just a little break. A lot of people take a year off, and so that was my little year off.”

Dreams for the future

Since her treatment, Rodriguez’ follow-up tests have shown no more cancer in her body. She re-enrolled in school and is finishing up her freshman year. She looks for opportunities to tell her story and inspire others. And she hopes to find ways to help raise money for research and raise awareness.

“I want to support young patients if they need someone to talk to,” she says. “I want them to know not to give up, because even though they might feel like it’s the end of world, it doesn’t always mean that.”

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