Saturday, May 18, 2013

Cancer Survivor Turns 21-Years-Old After 19-Year Remission

         It was a scene similar to that of a sci-fi movie. Kyla Fetzner, of Manchester, N.H., had five chest tubes spilling out of her body to relieve excess fluid brought by the tumor. Numerous nights were spent in the Intensive Care Unit, where Kyla laid in bed number four. The husband of another child walked out of the ICU and into the waiting room.

         Unbeknownst to the man, Kyla’s parents were also sitting in the waiting room. “I feel so bad for the child in bed four,” the man said to his wife. “They’re dying.”

         The Fetzners were then displaced into another room. Lee, Kyla’s father, fell to his knees in tears. “We’re losing our girl,” he said to Kristen.

         Kyla’s family considers her a miracle. She has been cancer free for over 19 years, and her faith has helped her understand the meaning of a purposeful life. Fetzner turned 21 on March 1 this year, and she will stop at nothing to tell her story while helping others along the way.

         She believes her life is defined by the Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11, which reads: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

         On March 1, 1992, Kyla Mary Fetzner was born to Kristen and Lee Fetzner. The labor only took two hours, and Kyla was perfectly healthy. On Friday, May 28, 1993, however, Kristen observed that Kyla was lethargic. On the following Monday, the Fetzners brought their bundle of joy to their doctor, where their lives would change forever.

         At 15-months-old, doctors diagnosed Fetzner with a large neuroblastoma mass growing in her chest, wrapped around her spinal column and displacing her internal organs. Fetzner was at Boston Children’s Hospital for two and a half months, and her medical costs were more than $750,000.

         According to the National Cancer Institute, neuroblastoma is a cancer that arises in immature nerve cells, affecting mostly infants and children. The disorder, consisting of a large malignant tumor, occurs in approximately 1 out of 100,000 children.

         “I use my cancer survival for encouragement to other people,” Fetzner said. Fetzner’s grandparents died from cancer when her father was very young, and she never got to meet them. “Some people don’t make it out alive at the end, and it makes me want to live an even fuller life for those people, too.”

         Fetzner was always exposed to sick children from a very young age when she had to frequently visit the Boston Children’s Hospital and the Jimmy Fund Clinic at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute for tests and check ups. Fetzner’s peers also misunderstood her. When she was about four years old, one little girl in her neighborhood, named Kea, told Fetzner that because she had cancer, she was going to die.

         At a young age, Kyla was somewhat sheltered by her parents due to her tragic experience. She knew she was different, and she was not afraid to tell other children about her miraculous story.

         However, Kyla learned to cope through academic excellence. She transcended her way through elementary school, middle school, and high school with mostly all A’s while participating in cheerleading and extra curricular activities. She also made a lot of friends.

         Kristen Fetzner, Kyla’s mother, recounted her traumatic experience while her baby girl was in the hospital. “We were there 72 nights straight in the hospital without coming home,” said Fetzner, “and I saw 23 children die.” The survival rate for Kyla’s type of cancer was only 30%.

         Six months prior to her surgery, Kyla had four intravenous chemotherapy treatments. The doctors warned that permanent damage could result from the chemo: hearing loss, learning disabilities, leukemia, and stunted growth and development. Fortunately, Kyla was not affected by any of these effects, and she did not vomit once – a very common side effect.

         On July 22, 1993, Kyla had open heart surgery to remove the grapefruit-sized mass wrapped around her spinal cord. “The doctors were more concerned about Kyla surviving the surgery than the cancer at this point,” Kristen said.

         During the procedure, Kristen went into the hospital bathroom and shut the door behind her. She kneeled and began to pray for her daughter's life. Moments later, Fetzner felt a pressure on her shoulder, like that of a hand. She turned around and nothing was there. Fetzner left the bathroom and fell asleep on the couch of the waiting room for a few hours. She finally had the peace she needed.

         “I believe I was truly touched by an angel,” Fetzner said. “I literally felt that pressure on my shoulder, and after that, I had such a feeling of peace and calmness.”

         Kristen remembered when people came to visit at the hospital, she needed to know they were praying for her daughter. “It gave me peace, because that’s all you could do,” Fetzner said. “I always said ‘faith, family, and friends,’ and that’s what got us through.”

         The seven hour surgery was successful, and the entire cancerous mass was removed. The procedure left Fetzner with a very long and thinly-faded scar from the left portion of her rib cage to her back.

         Kyla was officially declared cancer free on November 21, 1993. “I remember in 1998, when it was the five year mark, it was a huge deal.” Kyla said. “I was on the radio station, and they interviewed me.” Fetzner’s parents gave her a commemorative plaque, and her aunt gave her a bracelet engraved with the words, Miracle Child.

         Only local newspapers covered Kyla’s story. On August 5, 1993, the Nashua Telegraph published an advertisement to raise awareness and fundraise for the excessive medical costs. The event, a pig roast, raised $5,000 for the Kyla Mary Fetzner Medical Fund. Kristen personally wrote each donator a thank-you letter. In every envelope, she included a picture of her cancer-free daughter. “It was the kindness of strangers,” Kristen said.

         In addition to chemotherapy and surgery, Fetzner continued to be poked and prodded throughout her childhood than most people are in a lifetime. She had several bone marrow biopsies, hundreds of x-rays, blood tests, MRI’s, bone scans, and CT scans during her remission.

         “I went through every emotion,” Kristen said. “It’s a roller coaster ride.” Kristen was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after going through Kyla’s treatment. “If I go to a hospital today, I get anxious. [The experience] never leaves you.” Kristen was only 24 when Kyla was diagnosed, and she believes the experience brought her whole family closer.

         “There was good that came out of Kyla’s having cancer,” said Kristen, “because she has taught us to live one day at a time and enjoy every moment we are given.” Fetzner knew that her daughter was a gift from God, and she wanted to raise her as He saw fit. “And so when she got sick, [faith] got us through,” Fetzner said.

         “We still celebrate my remission day as a victory every year,” Kyla said. “To me, that day is bigger than my birthday.” Fetzner volunteered at a cancer center in Manchester, N.H. from 2008 to 2010, because she wanted to encourage people who were fighting cancer at the time. She spent some special moments with cancer patients while sharing her story and learning theirs.

         Faith is a significant part of Fetzner’s post-cancerous life. “I think I was spared, because God’s plan for my life wasn’t over, and God had great things planned for my life that hadn’t been done yet,” Fetzner said.

         Kristen recounts telling her healthy, three-year-old daughter to say, “Grace” before their meal. Kyla eagerly responded with, “Dear Jesus, I was cancered, and you made me better. Amen.”

         Kyla currently uses her experiences to have a positive outlook in life. She currently serves at her church and works with the youth ministry to inspire middle schoolers. “I want to have as many experiences as I can in my life,” Fetzner said.

         Melissa Myers, a junior at the University of Connecticut, and a high school friend of Fetzner, was struggling with her own faith. “I realized what Kyla had that I didn’t was a relationship with God,” Myers said. “Kyla enjoys the little things in life and is always happy.”

         Myers believes Fetzner is a genuinely good person who means well. “Once you believe in God, you see everything differently,” said Myers, “and now I know for a fact that God put Kyla in my life not only as a great friend, but to bring me closer to Him.”

         Fetzner said she never looks for sympathy from people, and she uses her survival to encourage others. “Having cancer has enriched my life,” Fetzner said. “It makes me feel strong and brings me closer to God.”

         “If she didn't survive, I would have never known what it’s like to have a sibling,” said Cameron, Fetzner’s 17-year-old brother. “Kyla has been a great role model to me, and if she didn't survive, I would have never had that.”

         Kyla’s epithets are “smiley” and “sunshine” in accordance to her bubbly and cheery personality.

         “She is our miracle,” Kristen said.

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