She missed it. They missed it.
Cristina Cooper missed school. Her doctors missed the cancer.
That was until she ended up at IU Health University Hospital. It had been eight months of sporadic visits to emergency rooms, physical therapists, and other out-patient centers before an MRI and an biopsy determined the cause of the pain in her left knee: Ewing Sarcoma.
The form of childhood cancer grows in the bones or soft tissue around the bones. Cristina was 17 and learned quickly what that diagnosis meant.
“By the time I got the diagnosis, my pain was at an 11 on a scale of one to 10,” she said. “It’s actually the second leading childhood cancer. I have met three people at Riley - all different ages - who have Ewing.”
That was two years ago. Now at age 19, Cristina has returned to work in Patient Care/Bone Marrow at University Hospital. She brings with her a perspective that she says was learned through personal experience.
A graduate of Franklin Central High School, she was performing with the school’s award-winning show choir when she began to feel pain in her left knee. Eventually the pain increased to where she could no longer put pressure on her leg.
“I wore heels in show choir, so my mom thought maybe I’d injured myself,” said Cristina, the youngest child of Les and Teresa Cooper. By the time she went to the emergency room she was in tears from the pain and swelling.
A blood clot was ruled out. She was prescribed an anti-inflammatory and physical therapy. Three months later, the pain persisted and she noticed a lump on the outside of her leg.
That’s when she met Todd E. Bertrand, orthopaedic oncologist and Emily L. Mueller, pediatric hematology oncologist, IU Health. By the time I got to Riley Hospital for Children, they had a plan ready; they put me on a trial and I can’t say enough about the treatment from a personal and professional level. It was amazing,” said Cristina.
“Because of the staff at Riley, I wasn’t afraid of dying; I was really only afraid of losing my long blonde hair. That was devastating.” After several rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor, Cristina did lose her hair. She also lost time at school with her friends. Her teachers provided homebound tutoring and her friends were fellow Riley patients.
Today, her hair is shoulder length and she says she is cancer free. She continues to coordinate follow-up doctor visits with her hospital friends and plans lunch outings afterward.
So what’s it like to come back to IU Health as a caregiver?
“I am not anxious at all. It was not a traumatic experience,” she added. “In fact, as strange as it sounds, I don’t feel any anxiety at all. I actually prayed every day to get this job.” Her work experience is a pre-requisite for a career she is eager to pursue – nursing.
“My ultimate goal when I graduate is to work with cancer patients at Riley – I know what it’s like. I know what they’re going through,” said Cristina, who admits she craved sleep so badly during treatment that she would fake being asleep when doctors came to visit.
“It’s those little things that I understand because I was a patient. I had cancer and know caring in a way that others may not. I’ve been there.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.