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Fighting cancer

Nurse, WCHS grad finds strong support in family, friends as she battles leukemia

September 18, 2012
Carrie Olson ( , The Daily Freeman Journal

Jennifer Erickson has been in the hospital for almost three months now. During that period of time, she has been home twice, only to be sent quickly back to her patient bed.

She was diagnosed with leukemia on June 25, and has been fighting the cancer in her body ever since.

Erickson, 27, is a 2002 graduate of Webster City High School. Originally from Stratford, she now resides in Boone, working as a nurse at Boone County Hospital. Prior to her work in Boone, Jennifer worked as an oncology nurse at Mary Greeley Medical Center.

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Erickson, 27, is a 2002 graduate of Webster City High School. Originally from Stratford, she now resides in Boone, working as a nurse at Boone County Hospital. Prior to her work in Boone, Jennifer worked as an oncology nurse at Mary Greeley Medical Center. She was diagnosed with leukemia on June 25.

Her fight against cancer began with a vacation to Cancun. Erickson said that she had a great time except for the last two days of her trip. That is when she started to develop pain and swelling in her bottom left jaw. When she returned home, Erickson said that the pain was so intense that she drove herself to the Mary Greeley emergency room that day. While in the ER, a doctor who was aware of her medical history ordered blood tests to be drawn. (Erickson had been diagnosed with Crohn's Disease in October of 2008 and rheumatoid arthritis in 2010.)

She was first admitted to the hospital for pain control and antibiotics. Soon after, Erickson received bad news.

"The doctor who admitted me held my hand and said the blood tests came back showing blasts (leukemia cells) in my peripheral blood smear," she said. "Since I was an oncology nurse at Mary Greeley for six years, I knew exactly what that meant."

Fact Box

A benefit dinner and silent auction will be held for Jennifer Erickson, of Boone (formerly of Stratford), from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Sunday at Stratford Elementary School. The freewill dinner will consist of barbecue pork sandwiches (donated by Stratford Mutual Telephone), sides, desserts and drinks (donated by Stratford Stride.)

Her family was called to the hospital at the urging of the doctor.

"The oncologist came in later that day, sat down and said, 'I'm sorry, Jenny, we need you on the fifth floor,'" Erickson recalled. The fifth floor where she previously worked.

"When the doctor told me the results, I said 'You have the wrong person. That can't be right.' There were a lot of tears and a lot of emotions."

But she felt comfort being on the fifth floor with people she knew.

"I knew what the staff was capable of," Erickson said. "I knew they were going to take care of me."

The oncologist had looked at the slides and said that it was definitely leukemia. Erickson said she underwent a bone marrow/extract/biopsy, CT scans and other blood tests the next day. The bone marrow extraction showed 95 percent blasts. A week after the first round of chemotherapy, another extraction showed only 5 percent blasts, but the week after that it had grown to 30 percent.

Doctors decided to start another round of chemotherapy. This came with side effects, such as Sweet Syndrome, hand and foot syndrome, Typhilitis and lung nodules that medical staff thought to be fungal.

One week after the treatment, on July 31, they took another extraction, which showed no blasts.

After more blood tests, it was found that Erickson has abnormal chromosomes. Because of this, she was told that the only way to a successful remission was to receive a bone marrow transplant. Erickson chose Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. to have the procedure done.

At Mayo, she underwent blood tests, CT scans, ultrasounds and bone marrow extraction. Unfortunately, her abdominal ultrasound showed lesions in her liver. After coming home to Iowa from the clinic, Erickson was soon transferred by ambulance back to Rochester. Tests were performed which found tumors in her abdomen.

Labor Day weekend, she was allowed to go home, regroup, and be back to the Mayo Clinic by Sept. 4 for the next round of chemotherapy. Heartache continued for Erickson. After two days of high-dosage chemotherapy, a liver biopsy showed that she had a very rare fungal infection, Zygomycosis, and that the lesions were growing.

"I have only had two days of high-dose chemo and had to shut it down," she said. "They had to stop it, if they kept going with the treatment, it would have killed me."

She and her family are anxiously awaiting the results of tests this week to determine if the fungus has grown or is subsiding. If they receive good news, Erickson will be able to start chemotherapy again.

Erickson said that while she fights the cancer and infection in her body, her family has been a strong emotional support - but it has been hard for them to see her sick.

"Behind closed doors, though, it is pretty tough," she said. "I know they hide most of it around me, because it is upsetting. "

Her sister, Brianna, cut her long, bright red hair chin-length. After losing chunks in the shower from the chemotherapy, Erickson made the decision to have it shaved.

"My sister shaved my hair and it was a very emotional time," she said. "Once the hair went, realization kicked in. It finally looked like I had cancer and that I really was sick."

Erickson wishes she were going through this like any other person - not as a person who has had years of experience as an oncology nurse.

"I wish I didn't have the knowledge I do," she said. "I overanalyze and over-think things. I think 'Oh my gosh, this will take this long and I will have this side effect and so on.'"

She said that the support has been overwhelming - from family, friends, co-workers, oncology patients, as well as strangers.

"The people who send cards, or stop my mom and say, 'Hey, give this to Jenny,'" she said. "People who I don't even know are sending me cards. It's awesome. I cried because of all the support."



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