Anna Woodbury sits on a handmade quilt at home, laughing and flapping her arms as her mother, Amy, describes a cancer experience that almost made her 6-month-old's life impossible.
A three-time cancer survivor at just 29, Amy Woodbury was 17 when she noticed a bump near her collarbone and to her shock was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She received treatment at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DF/BWCC), and each time she tried to spread her wings after that - as young adults tend to do - her cancer would draw her back to Boston for more care. "I felt like George Bailey in the movie It's a Wonderful Life," she recalls. Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in a 1946 film, keeps postponing his dreams of travel and adventure because his small New England town needs him.
The first time around, Amy had typical teenage concerns. She worried, "Will I go to the senior dance? Lose weight? Be bald?" She was treated with radiation therapy at DF/BWCC, graduated from high school, and attended the University of Rhode Island, cancer free for one year.
As a sophomore she transferred to the University of Florida, eager to build a new life away from home, but after one semester she learned that her cancer had returned. She moved back home to Westborough, Mass., to undergo chemotherapy at DF/BWCC, and took classes at Framingham State College.
Her parents swung into high gear as her advocates and champions, checking her chemotherapy orders and asking what would happen if a power failure interrupted her infusion. "We became very action-oriented," recalls Amy's mother, Sheila Cizauskas. "But from day one, Amy's doctor, David Fisher, nurse Kecia Boyd, RN, and the rest of the team welcomed our participation. They didn't just humor us. They were on board with us as demanding parents."
Amy and her parents say the care team respected and balanced their sometimes opposite perspectives. For example, when Amy later developed a platelet disorder, her mother was terrified. "There she was, wearing high heels and going out dancing," Cizauskas says. "But Dr. Fisher and Kecia were good mediators, usually siding with Amy but understanding the whole family was involved."
Before treatments for her first relapse began, Amy, who had always dreamed of becoming a mother, took a very important step: preserving her fertility, which is sometimes harmed by cancer treatments. Marc R. Laufer, MD, a reproductive specialist for DF/BWCC and Children's Hospital Boston, recommended that the then-19-year-old try a drug called Lupron, which could protect a woman's eggs during chemotherapy. "During this time I had no periods, but once my treatments were over my periods returned and my fertility was intact," says Amy.
Still determined to spread her wings, Amy went back to the University of Florida only to learn her cancer had relapsed a second time. She returned to Boston to undergo a stem cell transplant at DF/BWCC, a procedure which would hopefully give her healthy new bone marrow and drive the cancer away, for good. It worked; she transferred yet again to Bentley College, graduating in 2001 and meeting Greg Woodbury, whom she married in 2003.
Three years later Anna was born in an ambulance, and Amy, her body so many times betrayed by cancer, was amazed by her ability to deliver and later breastfeed her child. Today, as Anna grins and waves a rattle at her mom, Amy says, "This is what I always wanted my life to be. Every day is a gift. If not for my cancer, I wouldn't have met Greg nor had Anna. I wouldn't have this wonderful life."
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