One thing Megan Buysse dislikes about chemotherapy — it changes the way food tastes.
“We had potatoes the other day, and they tasted like fish,” she said on Tuesday, clearly still disgusted by the experience.
Megan, 20, got the first clues she had cancer several years ago, when she was still a student at Redwood Valley High School.
“The ninth rib on my right side used to hurt,” she said. “We checked it out, but everyone thought it was a tennis injury. The second time we checked it out, I was injected with cortisone.
“During my senior year, I’d get short of breath in track, and my rib would start to hurt again.”
After graduating in 2010, Megan started at St. Catherine University in the Twin Cities, majoring in apparel design and playing college tennis on the side.
In March 2011, when Megan was flying back from a college tennis meet in Texas, the ache on her side suddenly turned into “a jabbing pain that wouldn’t go away,”?she said.
By August, the pain had turned into a bump. Finally in August, Megan had a CT scan done at the Redwood Area Hospital.
“Later that day, the doctor called us and said, ‘Get over here right away,’” said Bonnie Buysse, Megan’s mom.
“They found a nine centimeter by 11 centimeter mass, about the size of a grapefruit, behind Megan’s ninth rib, and said she should be sent to Rochester.
“The doctor took us aside and said, ‘I’m scared, and your family is in our prayers.”
More tests followed at the Mayo Clinic. Finally, on Sept. 1, the doctors told the Buysses there was a 95 percent chance the mass was cancerous.
Then the family was sent home for the Labor Day weekend and told to relax.
“We were totally shocked,” said Bonnie. “Words can’t describe the feelings, the emotions, the fear of not knowing for sure. I thought, ‘Why couldn’t it be me?’ Your kids aren’t supposed to suffer like this.”
“I couldn’t believe it, since I was always so active,” said Megan.
Finally, on Sept. 6, Megan’s diagnosis came in: Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of slow-growing bone cancer.
“There are only about 250 cases of it in the United States every year,” said Megan.
Because the chemo was going to damage Megan’s reproductive system, chemotherapy was postponed for a several weeks.
“I had to do self-injections for 14 days to produce eggs,” said Megan.
“They were harvested and are being stored at a site in the Twin Cities, so there’s a chance she can have children someday,”?said Bonnie.
Next, in October, came the first round of chemotherapy to shrink the cancerous mass to the point it could be surgically removed. Fourteen rounds of chemo are needed in all — six before surgery, eight afterward.
Page 2 of 3 - “The nurses call (Megan’s chemo treatment) ‘the red devil,’ since it’s very, very hard on the body,” said Bonnie. “You watch all this chemo going into your daughter’s body, these chemicals that could kill her.... It helped when a very nice nurse told her, ‘This is going to kill the cancer.”
The chemo treatment is so harsh it kills off most of Megan’s white blood cells, leaving her vulnerable to other illnesses.
“There’s nothing left in her body to fight infection,” said Bonnie. “When we visited her in Rochester, we had to come in wearing masks.”
After each round of chemo, Megan wound up back in the hospital, receiving two units of blood and platelets for extremely low hemoglobin.
How did the chemo treatments make Megan feel?
“Miserable,” she said. “I’m tired all the time. It’s driving me crazy, because I’ve always been so active. That’s the most frustrating part.”
On the other hand, “it’s taught my friend who’s going into nursing a lot,” she added.
By that point, Megan’s hair was coming out in clumps. Finally the day came when she decided to just shave her head.
After giving herself a Mohawk hair style first, of course.
“The one thing through all of this, she’s never lost her sense of humor,” said Bonnie.
Megan’s surgery was scheduled in January, on Friday the 13th.
“The surgeon told us, ‘No, no, it’s a good day!’” said Bonnie.
The chemo had shrunk the tumor down to about two by seven centimeters. When doctors removed the tumor, they also took four inches of Megan’s ninth and eighth ribs and part of the diaphragm. They also found a benign nodule on her right lung.
Then came nearly a month off from chemo to recover from the surgery.
After the seventh chemo treatment, she was hit with another complication — an infection in one leg required two weeks of antibiotics, postponing the chemo treatments yet again.
To keep herself busy between treatments, Megan designed and sewed a dress to be auctioned off for a fundraiser at St. Catherine University.
She intended to model the dress herself, but could barely walk because of the leg infection. Her sister Evan modeled it instead.
“The dress brought in $350, and they asked me go to up and talk about it for a bit,” said Megan.
For the recent Dancing with the Stars fundraiser for cancer research in Redwood Falls, Megan’s friends from dance class created a special dance in her honor.
“I just watched it and cried the whole time,” said Bonnie. “This community.... the encouragement, the love, the hugs... everyone is wonderful. I can’t say thanks enough.”
Page 3 of 3 - “People see her out and about now, and think she doesn’t have cancer, or that she’s feeling okay,” said Bonnie. “They only see her on the two days each month when she’s having a good day.”
“I still have seven rounds of chemo left,” said Megan. “I’m the only sarcoma patient they have now who gets so sick after treatments I end up back in the hospital every time. I’ve lost 19 pounds just from the chemo.”
As for Megan’s prognosis, “they said it’s curable,” she said.
Megan’s chemo treatments were scheduled to end a week before her 21st birthday in June.
“My friends and I plan to go to Aruba when this is all over, if there’s no delay,” Megan said, “but you can’t really plan anything.”