Tag Archives: birth

Young and Surviving Cancer

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It was just eight weeks after Amberly Wagner-Connolly had given birth to twins when she received the devastating news that she had breast cancer. She was just 29.

“I knew that life as I knew it would never be the same,” she recalls. “I was so shocked. Why me? Why would I have these beautiful kids and then so soon after find this out?”

As it turns out, the experience has come to be one of the most positive things that has happened in Wagner-Connolly’s life. It also became the springboard that put her goals in motion.

“It has helped guide me in my life and my career,” she says. “It opened my eyes to how much worse things could be and inspired me to do more with my life. Through cancer, I realized that I wanted to go into public health where I can help others. I know I am a better mom, friend, teacher, nurse, wife—everything. All of my roles have been affected in a positive way because of [cancer].”

On March 1, Wagner-Connolly celebrated her four-year anniversary of being a cancer survivor, and while she has managed to make it a positive in her life, she acknowledges that it was also one of the most difficult and trying times in her life.

“It has helped guide me in my life and my career. It opened my eyes to how much worse things could be and inspired me to do more with my life.” – Amberly Wagner-Connolly, survivor

The number of young adults who are diagnosed with cancer is very low, usually less than 5 percent, depending on the cancer, says Margaret Block, M.D., a medical oncologist at Nebraska Cancer Specialists. But for those who do receive the disturbing news, it can be a very emotional and stressful journey.

Like many young cancer patients, Wagner-Connolly experienced the challenges and emotional turmoil common among people her age. She struggled with the shock of being diagnosed at such an early age; she feared not being around to see her children grow up; and she grew weary from juggling two tiny twins and a four-year-old daughter when she could barely take care of herself.

Her family and friends and people she didn’t even know became her biggest supporters. Her husband worked nights and was able to help as much as he could during the day. Her mother and mother-in-law also provided help when they could and were there for emergencies.

Her co-workers at The Nebraska Medical Center held a fundraiser for her. Several friends of her sister who work at Lincoln Financial Group also organized a fundraiser/auction and raised more than $6,000 to help her with her medical bills.

This touched Wagner-Connolly greatly and was a turning point that helped her keep fighting. “It made me see the good in the world,” she says. “When complete strangers reached out to help me, I became determined that I had to do something with my life to make an impact like they had for me.”

“The number of young adults who are diagnosed with cancer is very low, usually less than 5 percent, depending on the cancer.” – Margaret Block, M.D., medical oncologist with Nebraska Cancer Specialists

Determined to not let her surgery and chemotherapy treatment slow her down, Wagner-Connolly was able to continue her master’s studies, finishing on her target date. She also kept a challenging work schedule as a nurse at The Nebraska Medical Center.

Being able to maintain some control over other parts of her life was important to her mental well-being. There were days during her six-month chemotherapy regimen when she felt as if she couldn’t go on. “I just had to take it day by day,” she recalls. “I did a lot of reality checks.”

Having goals—such as seeing her children grow up, completing her master’s degree, and wanting to live to make a difference in the world—fueled her will to keep fighting.

“Amberly did an amazing job,” says Peggy Jarrell, LCSW, OSW-C, a licensed clinical social worker and a certified oncology social worker at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who worked with her during her treatment. “Motherhood can be stressful enough…put cancer on top of that, and you have a lot to deal with. [She] was able to maintain her own and still stay active in the outside world.”

Jarrell says it’s very important for cancer patients to establish a good support network of people and friends who can help them through this period. She also recommends having a designated support person who can accompany them at appointments and act as their second set of ears. Many hospitals now provide nurse navigators to help patients “navigate” the health care system.

Stacy Patzloff, RN, BSN, a certified oncology nurse navigator at Alegent Creighton Health, says nurse navigators work closely with the patient and the cancer support team to make sure everything is coordinated. They’re there to attend appointments with them and to act as a support person who is available 24/7.

“Motherhood can be stressful enough…put cancer on top of that, and you have a lot to deal with.” – Peggy Jarrell, licensed clinical social worker and certified oncology social worker with Nebraska Methodist Hospital

Support is key, agrees Dr. Block, whether it’s family, friends, a support group, or seeking the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist. Exercise can also be a good thing and may help you get through chemotherapy with less fatigue, she notes.

Other tips that may help young patients get through treatment and recovery include:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help from others.
  • Take time for yourself if you’re having a bad day.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Seek the nutrition advice of dietitians on staff at the hospital where you are receiving treatment.
  • Take care of your physical well-being. Programs like Alegent Creighton Health’s Image Recovery program provide cancer patients with wigs and helps them deal with hair, nail, and skin problems that are unique to cancer patients.

Today, Wagner-Connolly is very active in a number of projects to help other young victims of cancer. She started the group Survivors Raising Kids for young parents who need help with childcare during treatment and recovery. She is on the board of Camp Kesem for kids who have had a parent with cancer. She is also a nursing instructor at Clarkson College where she teaches public health and is pursuing a doctorate in global health.

“I know how lucky I am,” she says. “I want to make a difference in this world. No one should have to face cancer and certainly not a young mom.”

And for those who do, Wagner-Connolly is committed to easing that journey.

Family Success Story: The Dotsons

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Date night” is not a term often used in the Dotson household; however, “family” is. After 11 years of marriage, David and Susie Dotson have experienced more than any parents should, but they still find time to come together as a family and cherish the moments they have. “Our marriage has shaped us to be better parents,” Susie explains.

“Strength” is another word thrown around a lot when discussing the Dotsons. Their first child, Noah, was born with autism. “He suffered from anxiety [when he heard] any loud noise growing up. He didn’t develop his speech to explain his fears and anxiety until around age 4.” Susie became focused on trying to help Noah by going to autism events, getting involved in discussion groups, and doing her own research. The Millard Public Schools district was able to get Noah started with homebound help at age 2, and eventually into Halo, a gifted learning program at Wheeler Elementary School, where he continues to build his communication skills.

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A couple years after Noah’s birth, Lily was born five weeks early and had to stay in the NICU for two weeks. She went home on a heart monitor and eventually grew into a healthy baby girl. Five years later, however, Lily was suddenly diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer common in childhood and characterized by the overproduction of immature white blood cells in the bone marrow.

Susie remembers the day they found out. “I felt all summer long that something wasn’t right with her. I had mother’s intuition.” After complaining of stomach aches and her legs hurting when she played sports, Susie took Lily out of gymnastics, soccer, and swimming. She thought the schedule may have been too daunting for her little girl. “After a couple of weeks into school, I noticed bruising,” she says, “After about two weeks of the bruising getting worse and showing up in places that you normally don’t bruise, I made an appointment.”

“I feel like we are still figuring it all out. There are days that are not pretty. One of my favorite quotes for my family is, ‘We may not have it all together, but together, we have it all.’” – Susie Dotson

The night before Lily’s doctor’s appointment, Susie decided to google her daughter’s symptoms. Every result came back the same: cancer. Susie’s heart sank. “I took a photo of her eating breakfast before school that morning, knowing that this is what a normal day looked like before cancer.” Later that day, after five minutes of examining Lily, their pediatrician told Susie that her daughter had cancer and needed to go to the emergency room immediately. “Within 24 hours, she started blood transfusions, chemo, spinal tap, and a bone marrow scan. She has had over a dozen platelet and whole blood transfusions. She was put on high risk and only a 40 percent chance of making it the first year. She is now up to 65-70 percent.”

Lily’s fight not only took a toll on her but also on the Dotson’s marriage and Susie’s relationship with Noah. “Communication is key, and we are slowly finding that. During the heavy treatment, it was very hard to have a meaningful relationship [with David or Noah] with the high demands of Lily’s cancer treatment. But we are now learning how to heal as a married couple. I’m also loving my ‘Noah time.’ I feel like I missed a whole year of his life. I missed him.”

Lily’s treatment doesn’t end until January 2014, but the heavy treatment portion concluded last July. Lily can now do daily chemo treatments at home and go to school.20130407_bs_0015 Medium Copy

While life is far less stressful than it was a year ago, Susie says, “No matter what day it is, cancer doesn’t let you forget you’re fighting it. Once your family is hit by cancer, you are constantly in the battle…You never get to leave the battlefield.” The Dotsons still find time to be a normal family, with Lily dressing up the family Maltese, Santana, and Noah writing letters to the family beta fish: Patrick, Sandy, Rainbow Buddy, and Red Nose Clown Nose. And maybe soon, Susie and David will finally get that date night.

“I feel like we are still figuring it all out. There are days that are not pretty. One of my favorite quotes for my family is, ‘We may not have it all together, but together, we have it all.’”

Alicia Smith Hollins and Zelda

January 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Alicia Smith Hollins, 34, says she was never much of an animal person growing up. Her two sisters sisters were always the ones wanting to take care of the family’s yellow lab, Gunner, and brown lab, Penny, while Smith Hollins was “more into getting into trouble.” But something changed when she and husband Trevor Hollins took in Zelda, a 9-year-old Miniature Schnauzer.

Smith Hollins, a sales associate with Omaha Publications and an alumna of Duchesne Academy, thought about getting a dog after she and Trevor moved into their Aksarben Village home, but they never got around to it. It wasn’t until Trevor’s mom’s co-worker was looking for a home for one of her show dogs that Zelda found her way into their care. “Trevor’s parents’ dog had just died, so they had Zelda over for the weekend to see if they were ready for another dog. But then we took her for a weekend, and she ended up staying with us for good,” she says. 20121219_bs_8082 copy

Zelda originally had just been called Z, which was short for another name that Smith Hollins says she can’t remember. “We figured if we wanted to change her name, it needed to start with a Z, since she was already 6 years old when we got her. So we called her Zelda, which Trevor liked because he loves [The Legends of Zelda] video games, and I have always been fascinated with reading about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.”

One of the things Smith Hollins says she and Trevor liked the most about Zelda was that she had been trained to be a show dog, so she was already potty-trained and didn’t chew up all of their things. However, Smith Hollins did worry that Zelda had experienced some trauma during the somewhat grueling training of the show dog life. “Her tail was cut incorrectly, so she actually couldn’t participate in the shows, but she was bred twice. Her second birth was a C-section, and she apparently almost died.” Another issue Smith Hollins encountered with Zelda was her teeth. “Apparently, Schnauzers have bad teeth, so we took her to the doggy dentist a few months after we got her, and they pulled 11 teeth. The next year, they pulled nine, so she doesn’t have a lot of teeth left, but I think she would be in more pain had we not done it.”

Smith Hollins' son, Logan, plays with Zelda in the family's backyard

Smith Hollins’ son, Logan, plays with Zelda in the family’s backyard.

In terms of activity, Zelda is a fairly laidback dog. Smith Hollins says she doesn’t go on walks or play with toys but rather prefers to cuddle and be petted. “She won’t walk on a leash, [and] she won’t go to the bathroom on a leash because show dogs are trained not to do that, so we really don’t take her for walks…She had one toy she played with for a while, but she chewed it up. I tried to buy the same toy again, but she hasn’t touched it.”

Although Zelda is timid, she has become more protective of the family over time, especially with Smith Hollins’ 2-year-old son, Logan. “I think it’s adorable because she really doesn’t want to play with him, but she wants to protect him.”20121219_bs_8030 copy

She admits that, at first, she feared that Zelda would have a hard time adjusting to having a baby around, as she had always been the baby and slept by Smith Hollins’ side every night. But after Logan was born, Zelda began sleeping by his bed every night and even started barking if someone was at the door.

While Smith Hollins thinks Zelda can have really weird quirks that make her seem somewhat high-maintenance, she says she loves Zelda because she is a perfect lap dog. “If you are having a bad day, she will let you cuddle up to her.”