Battling cancer at 19 years old

August 17, 2017

When Katlyn Calhoun started noticing a pain in her foot, she was convinced nothing was wrong. At 18, Katlyn was planning to start college and make a life for herself.

But that pain in her foot would change her future more than she could have imagined.

“I didn’t believe it was really something serious,” Katlyn said. “When we went in and they marked my foot for my amputation, I think that was really when I realized this is actually happening.”

Katlyn was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Ewing sarcoma in February 2017. The pain in her foot was from a tumor, and on March 2, just a week before her 19th birthday, half of Katlyn’s right foot was amputated.

Later that month, she started chemotherapy. With her mom, Tiffany Calhoun, and 2-year-old sister, Charlie, Katlyn travels more than 200 miles from her family’s home in Williston, N.D., to Sanford Children’s in Bismarck every 14 days, spending a week in the hospital each time.

Since starting treatment, Katlyn hasn’t been home for a full week at a time. But her caregivers help make her time at Sanford Children’s as comfortably normal as it can be.

When Katlyn checks into the hospital, her favorite nurses come to visit, commenting on her excellently applied makeup and gushing about her little sister Charlie. Dr. Baruti Serabe, Katlyn’s pediatric oncologist, is always there, too.

“Dr. Serabe makes sure everything is exactly the way it needs to be for Katlyn,” Tiffany said. “She will come into the room and sit down and just talk to us, not about chemo or cancer but just about life. She sometimes comes in seven days a week just to see her patients.”

Katlyn’s family moved from Georgia to Williston two years ago for her dad’s work. When Katlyn was diagnosed, Tiffany thought they would have to move to a larger city for treatment. With five younger children, that would have meant separating their family so her husband could continue to pastor at a local church.

Katlyn was first diagnosed at Mayo Clinic, but referred to Sanford Children’s for chemotherapy. The family has been so happy with their care in Bismarck, they don’t plan to travel the 11 hours to Mayo for more checkups. Katlyn can receive the expert care she needs fewer than four hours from home.

“When we got to Sanford,” Tiffany said, “everything was just phenomenal from going to the clinic, getting up to the sixth floor and getting the chemo treatments.”

Katlyn just finished her seventh round of chemo and hopes to be done with treatment by the end of the year, but she also feels her life will never go back to what it was before cancer.

“Sometimes I think, it’ll go away when I’m done with chemo,” Katlyn said. “It’ll all be back to normal. It won’t actually be back to normal.”

Katlyn’s hair started to come out in clumps shortly after she started chemo, and now Katlyn covers her bald head with baseball caps. She doesn’t like to go out without one. People stare, and when Katlyn has to wear a mask at the grocery store or Walmart, people look at her like she’s contagious.

“I don’t want people to know, and I want to hide it,” Katlyn said. “That was the hardest part, and I was really upset. I saw other people with cancer, and thought, ‘They are so confident. Why are they like that and I’m not?’ I wanted to be happy, so I decided I would be.”

Since then, Katlyn said her diagnosis has been easier to cope with. She focuses on what makes her happy, like painting and spending time with her younger siblings.

Katlyn’s experience at Sanford Children’s has inspired her to work with children in the future. She sees young kids crying because a shot hurts, and they don’t understand it will help make them better. She wants to help them and is considering a career working with young cancer patients as a nurse, social worker or maybe even in fundraising.

“People in those jobs get to help a lot of people,” Katlyn said, “and I want to help others who are going through this.”