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In control of the lesson plan

May 26, 2008|Susan Brink

When Patti Waggoner saw a baby-size tuxedo displayed in a department store, she didn't think "wedding" or "baptism" or any sort of celebration. "My first thought was, 'Oh, a little casket suit,' " she says.

There's a bleak side to this 36-year-old survivor of Hodgkin's lymphoma from Valley Village. Her skin is pale, her nails painted black. Tattoos circle her ankles and run down her back and upper arms: of pirates, bats and the seven deadly sins.

Death brushed by her early, when she was 17, and she's thought about it a lot since then. "I was on a ward with 13 kids, and eight of them died," she says. "There was all this young suffering and death around. . . . I just remember that I would have given anything to be a normal teenager. The pain was so bad: the bone ache, everything from your gums hurting to rashes to puking bile from your lower intestines."

The tattoos, she says, are a way of doing with her body what she chooses, not what berserk cancer cells dictate.

The first cancer hit during her junior year in high school, and she was treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. "I made my treatment longer because I drank through it," she says. "They were telling me that I had an 80% chance of living. And I'm thinking, 'I'm supposed to have a 100% chance.' I weighed 90 pounds, no hair anywhere, plastic tubes coming out of my chest . . . I reeked of death. Wouldn't you drink?"

After her treatment as a teen, she knew she had a higher-than-normal risk of a second cancer. It came about a year ago -- a thyroid cancer, successfully treated. She's had surgery for numbness in her fingers, another consequence of childhood cancer treatments, and a benign lump removed from her breast. She's been treated for extreme fatigue and takes prescription drugs for her thyroid, pain, insomnia and depression.

But she has taken control of her life in some practical ways. By 20, she was sober and remains so. She never made it back to high school but nailed an equivalency diploma, took courses at community colleges, went to UCLA and became a teacher. Cancer survivors have to get a college education, she says. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to get jobs that insure us." Now she teaches honors English at L.A.'s Marshall High School. She probably could have children, but won't. "Genetically speaking, I was dealt a really bad hand," she says. "Why pass it on?"

Waggoner wants physicians to understand what early cancer survival has done to her. "I'm a pediatric cancer survivor, and if I do anything, I want to leave that print," she says. "My second job is teaching doctors. They need me because . . . it's going to get worse. More children are going to survive cancer."

-- Susan Brink

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