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Faith Is Helping Teen-Ager Win Fight of Her Life : Rachel Nixon's 2-Year Cancer Struggle Hasn't Altered Her Plans to Be a Doctor

March 12, 1995| Rachel Nixon, 17, is a senior at Crenshaw High School. For two years, she has been battling cancer, which has slowed her down physically but has not affected a lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. Nixon was recently accepted to USC, and last month she won a special student achievement award from the Assn. of Black Women Entrepreneurs. Although her illness forced her to stop attending school full time, she has been able to keep on academic track with the aid of private tutors provided by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Rachel talked to Erin J. Aubry about her experiences and the steadfast faith that has seen her through

I want to become a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who treats children diagnosed with cancer. I always wanted to be either a doctor or a nurse; I really made up my mind two years ago when I got cancer. Now I get outpatient chemotherapy five days a week for one week each month at Kaiser (Hospital) on Sunset.

There are always a lot of little kids there, sitting around in the waiting room. The doctors and the nurses are so special, they're incredible. They give a hundred times over what they have to give to get paid; they're so loving.

Once I saw that, and once I had the experience of the love they've given me, my mind was made up--I have to be a pediatric oncologist. I want to give back some of what I've gotten over the past two years.

Also, I love kids. I'm the oldest one in the clinic; most of the kids are between 2 and 10. I play with them a lot. I color (pictures) with them. It's funny, you never hear them complain; they always find something to do. They really set examples for me.

I found out about my illness April 16, 1993. I had a real bad runny nose for about two months before that. My pediatrician said, "Oh, you have a sinus infection," and she gave me some antibiotics. They didn't do anything, so I went back for an X-ray and more antibiotics. Then I starting losing vision in my right eye. It got real dim, and I couldn't see color and shape, only shadows; in one week, the vision in that eye was totally black.

I went back to my pediatrician and said, "I'm blind, something's wrong here." I was given a CAT scan and found out something was pushing on my optic nerve. Barely an hour after the scan, they called my house, practically hysterical, saying, "Is she OK? Is she in convulsions?" to my parents. I didn't know what was going on. Cancer was the last thing on my mind; I don't smoke, so I never thought about it. I got an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) next, which is like going into a tunnel. By then, my sense of smell was almost completely gone. But I still didn't know what was wrong with me.

By the next morning, I found out I had cancer. I had a huge tumor as big as my face that spread up my sinus cavities. They wanted to get to it right away because it was on the optic nerve and starting to affect my good eye. The tumor is inoperable because it's so close to my brain. But the first thing I thought about was my hair falling out. I had a whole lot of hair, and I was really worried about that. I asked the doctors about it, and they said, yes, it will probably fall out because of the chemotherapy.

The next day I had a spinal tap to test for leukemia. I wasn't prepared for that--it really hurt. I had to get a biopsy of the tumor and get tested to see how much chemotherapy my body could take.

The three kinds of chemotherapy I had tore me up completely. I vomited as much as 20 and 30 times a day. I had no desire to eat. When the doctors saw I couldn't keep anything down, they started me on intravenous feed--my parents called it McDonald's in a bag because it was fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins--all that stuff--in a liquid.

I had 28 treatments of radiation, which doesn't hurt, but has a lot of effects they don't know about. I had radiation sickness and stomach cramps that got so bad I had to go into the hospital for a morphine drip. The radiation doesn't exactly burn, but it left a huge dark mark all around the back of my head, where the rays came out of. That didn't hurt, but it was ugly.

I've been raised in a home where the Bible's been taught to me since I was young, and God really plays an important part in my life. Despite this bad situation, my belief is that God doesn't make mistakes.

The Bible says that all things work together for those who love him, and I love him with all my heart. So even though things are bad, and sometimes I ask "Why me?" I know that everything will work together for good. When I get down, I know I can always count on him. He has really played a very important in this, because without him I would have no reason to live. He has really brought me through this, along with my family being behind me 100%. They're always there for me, helping me, spending the night at the hospital with me, asking me if there's anything that I need. They have been tremendous.

And with God on my side, nothing's impossible, not even cancer. My tumor has shrunk, but even if it hadn't, I know heaven is waiting for me. Even if I don't get cured of cancer, even though I want to live and I like living, I'm not afraid to die.

God's been using me. People often say, "Oh, I can't do it, I can't make it." God is using me to encourage those people, to say to them, "If I can do it, you can do it." People take inspiration from me, and I'm glad of that. I had a boyfriend at the time I got sick, and he was so supportive, even when I got bald-headed, he was right there with me the whole time. He's at the University of Nebraska now, but he calls me all the time to see how I'm doing.

I'll be graduating in June--Yay! I'm so happy. My prognosis is that I'll finish chemotherapy by April. I've got my appetite back. Now, I'm looking at the light.

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