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High-schooler beats cancer odds

Sitting in class at Dawson-Bryant High School this week is just one of many victories 15-year-old Tabatha Fields has won in her young life.

Monday, September 06, 1999

Sitting in class at Dawson-Bryant High School this week is just one of many victories 15-year-old Tabatha Fields has won in her young life.Three years ago, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that develops in the lymphathic – circulatory – system.

"I was really tired, and I slept all the time," Tabatha recalled of her symptoms.

She saw a succession of doctors, but none were able to diagnose the problem, her mother, Sheila Fields, said.

Finally, they turned to local pediatrician, Dr. Margaret Ng-Cadlaon. Within moments of beginning her exam, Dr. Ng noticed a lump on Tabatha’s neck. She sent the then-12-year-old out of the room and shared her suspicions with Mrs. Fields.

Within hours, a biopsy was performed on the lump, and Dr. Ng’s fears were confirmed.

The lump was malignant.

Tabatha then began a medical odyssey that would last almost three years, ending happily with her cancer now in remission.

However, the road to remission was painful and emotional.

She underwent radiation treatment as well as six months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.

"Tabby has had it all," Mrs. Fields said with a sigh tinged with pride at her daughter’s courage. "The last radiation treatment was eight months ago. She still has a tumor in her abdomen, but as long as the tumor doesn’t grow, she is in remission."

The tumor in Tabatha’s abdomen is in a difficult spot to remove surgically, Mrs. Fields added. Because of its proximity to her spine, removal would bring with it a high risk of paralysis.

While her remission has brought joy to Tabatha and her family, it also has come with a price. The treatments have caused one kidney to become enlarged, and Tabatha could eventually lose her spleen as well as the affected kidney.

For now, though, they simply are relishing each day that is free from treatment and illness, Mrs. Fields said.

"We go for check-ups every three months, but right now, there are no treatments at home," she added.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma usually begins as a small tumor and travels through the body’s glands to spread the malignancy. In Tabatha’s case, tumors were found in her chest, abdomen and pelvis.

"I was really scared," Tabatha said. "I remember being really afraid that my hair would fall out."

Her fears were realized as she did suffer hair loss during the extensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

"At first, I just cried and shook," Tabatha recalled as she opened a plastic bag containing many of the large plastic syringes that once contained her bone marrow. "I started making a mental turnaround after about six months of chemotherapy. I realized I had to get used to it that I had to deal with it.

"I can’t walk around all the time worrying about what will happen next."

The Fields’ family is no stranger to cancer. Mrs. Fields shook her head sadly, noting that her sister died recently of leukemia. Others in the family with diagnosed cancer include her husband’s aunts, Mrs. Fields’ mother and a 3-year-old cousin.

Radiation, chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant severely reduced Tabatha’s immune system, forcing her to use home tutors during the past three years.

Now, the remission has allowed her to return to the classroom and her friends.

"I’m ready," Tabatha said with a confident smile. "I am tired of staying home. I know I will have to push myself to walk, to climb stairs, but I know I can do it."

Her fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma also helped forge her career goals.

"I want to become a pediatric oncologist (cancer specialist)," Tabatha said. "I must get used to walking now because I have a lot of college ahead of me."

Her illness forced Tabatha to gain maturity and serenity many only achieve after decades of living, Mrs. Fields said.

"I do think, though, that parents, children and schools need to become more aware of medical situations like this," Mrs. Fields added. "We went through a tremendous amount of change during the past three years."

She suggested schools plan education assemblies that bring in healthcare professionals to discuss cancer and other diseases that might strike students.

"Cancer is not contagious," Mrs. Fields stressed. "It was sad during Tabby’s illness that some of her friends were afraid to call or to come visit because they thought it might be contagious."