When doctors couldn't find the source of the excruciating pain she felt as a teen, Debbie Coolman was referred to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Now 50, she looks back on what it has meant to have St. Jude as part of her life, including a breast cancer diagnosis decades after her treatment for childhood cancer.
For an entire year beginning when I was 13, I felt excruciating pain. Numerous tests couldn’t pinpoint the cause, and my doctor in Ohio theorized it was growing pains.
At a second visit, he said it must be arthritis and I would need to learn to live with the pain. I tried to imagine living my entire life this way, and it filled me with a sense of hopelessness.
The pain was a throbbing, aching feeling that hurt deep inside my legs. I would rub them, but there was no relief. Nighttime was the worst, when I would lie in bed in agony and get no sleep. In the morning, I would have to get up and go to school, as though everything were normal.
One year after our first trip to the doctor, my parents took me back to see if there was anything he could do. He said I was faking it to get attention, that the pain wasn’t even real.
By this time, I had dropped out of sports and my normal activities.
A doctor’s opinion can be a powerful thing, but my parents could see my suffering. They believed in me, and by doing so, they changed the course of my life.
They switched to a different doctor, which led to a referral to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 1984, where tests determined I had stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma, and it had spread to my bones.
I had been on painkillers, but after my first dose of chemotherapy at St. Jude, the pain disappeared. Two years of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation therapy at St. Jude made sure the Hodgkin lymphoma was gone for good.
If that had been all St. Jude had done, it would have been plenty.
But in 2008, St. Jude invited me back for the St. Jude LIFE study, which investigates the long-term effects of cancer treatment as a way to improve the health of survivors and create better treatments.
They found breast cancer in a scan I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have done in my hometown. That’s why I tell people St. Jude saved my life not once, but twice.
St. Jude doesn’t stop caring for you when you’re done with your treatment. It carries through your whole life.
I just turned 50 in July, and I live in a wonderful community in Florida with my husband where we play tennis, ride bikes and go boating. I get to be a kid again but as an adult, and it feels great.
I’m older than my parents were when I got sick, and I think about this all the time: What would their lives have been like had I not gone to St. Jude?
Thankfully, we’ll never have to answer that question, because St. Jude has given us a lifetime of memories together.
I was able to move my parents from Ohio to Florida last year. St. Jude has allowed me the privilege of taking care of them as they’re getting older, and I don’t take that for granted.
With each year that passes, I find new reasons to be grateful for St. Jude.