When Erika Allen looks down into the smiling face of her 8-month-old daughter, Hope, she smiles back as she reflects on the journey – one with many scary chapters – that led to this amazing little person she sees as a gift from God.
“Once you are a survivor of cancer, you never really go back to being who you were before,” said the 35-year-old mother of three. “My husband and I really see Hope as a reward for our faith through all the dark times. God saw us through the cancer, the transplant – and on the other side of that battle, we were blessed with her.”
Allen’s battle began in 2010, and as she reflects on it, she said it was truly like a battle, with many sacrifices and lots of fear. It started when she found a lump in her right underarm while doing a routine self-exam of her breast at her home in Rapid City, where the Allen family makes their home.
“It was in November 2010 when I found a lump, and after an ultrasound, the doctors saw it as a cyst, but I just felt terrible, almost all the time,” Allen said. “I felt anxious all that winter, and in the spring, it had not improved, and I had another ultrasound, a CT scan and a biopsy. That’s when the cancer was confirmed. The prognosis I received was really poor.”
Her care team in Rapid City confirmed that Allen had a rare non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When the news was official, the results were what most of us would expect, Allen said. “I was scared to death and the news, to me, seemed like a death sentence,” she said. “My care team recommended that I look into going to Omaha, because there were specialists and the team we would need there. But it seemed so far away. I didn’t really want to go to Omaha.”
That’s when she met Kelly, as she said McCaul insisted she call him. “It was a godsend, I really feel God put him in my life,” she said. “He explained everything to me, my husband, Nic, and my mom and dad. He sat with us for two hours during that first meeting. I felt from that instant that he would fight for me. It gave me the hope that I could battle this thing and win.”
Three hours later, she was in an operating room to remove the tumor.
That surgery began the multi-part process that led her to an autologous bone-marrow transplant. Autologous means the patient will donate his or her own stem cells to be reinfused. Like most people, she imagined such a process would involve drills into bone and pain. It seemed terrifying, she said.
“Kelly really cared about me and he took the time to explain that this kind of transplant is not like an organ coming from a donor.”
The Avera transplant team collects stem cells through a process called apheresis. It’s like giving blood, but the team will include chemotherapy to kill cancer cells, and then reinfuse the stem cells to grow healthy blood cells.
Amidst the pre-transplant chemotherapy, the six-day process that was the bone-marrow transplant itself and post-procedure recovery, the many challenges added up. Allen said she never felt alone, even with the travel across South Dakota with her mom and the nights on Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center’s third floor, where she recovered as her immune system rebuilt itself after her stem cells were reinfused.
“We all had to fight, but I had many allies in the battle,” she said. “From the gift shop in the Prairie Center to the nurses on 3 East, to Kelly and my other doctors – I felt like they were fighting alongside me.” The transplant took place in 2011, and slowly but steadily she began to get her life back, to regrow her hair and to return to her full-time role as mom to son and daughter, Luke, 9, and Lily, 7.
That’s why when she found out she was pregnant last July, some fear returned, but so too did a sense of success. “Due to the chemotherapy, and all that we’d been through, it was scary – at times terrifying,” Allen said. “But it seemed to be God’s way of saying ‘You have made it through the battle, and this is your gift.’ This was a miracle to me and my family.”
Hope was born in February 2016, and she embodies her name. Allen says her message for those who face the same news is clear: find a doctor who will fight for you, and then together fight fiercely.
“There’s so much to live for and it’s not easy,” she said. “When I look at Hope, I realize all the sickness, the travel, the surgeries – it was all worth it.”