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A life on hold

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Ashley Bissel battles to reclaim some normalcy as her first round of cancer treatments ends

By Emile Hallez

Editor’s note: The Columbine Courier is following Ashley Bissel’s journey through her treatment for brain cancer. This is the second installment in an ongoing series.

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An oversized three-month calendar hangs on the wall above Ashley Bissel’s bed. The days are crossed out with a heavy pink marker, the way a student would mark off the weeks till the end of school or an overworked professional would note progress toward a tropical holiday.

Ashley is looking forward to a vacation, of sorts.

Three months ago, the 23-year-old was planning her wedding and preparing for a full course load at nursing school. Then came a diagnosis of brain cancer, putting every facet of her future on hold.

Now, she is simply holding her breath, awaiting a break from a summer dominated by a 45-day debilitating course of chemotherapy and radiation.

“I used to just be on the go all the time. And now I do little things and just get really tired,” said Ashley, a 2005 graduate of Dakota Ridge High School.

Ashley was diagnosed in May with astroblastoma, an extraordinarily rare and rapidly proliferating brain tumor. Her daily chemotherapy treatments began in late June.

“I worry about a lot of things I never used to that people take for granted, like going to the grocery store — worrying about germs everywhere.”

  A shocking diagnosis

Just a day before her first nursing school class, Ashley was handed a succinct medical answer for an unexplained year-long bout of headaches. Her school plans were pushed back for a few months, but the harsh reality of cancer therapy soon began to exact its toll.

In late June she made a trip to the University of Northern Colorado to talk to faculty members about her options. But in the midst of their conversation, she was overwhelmed with weakness — a symptom of her depleted blood count and a familiar side effect of chemotherapy. An immediate drive back to the Denver area followed, and Ashley spent a day in the University of Colorado Hospital’s emergency department.

“My body was really sensitive to the chemo, and it was just hitting me hard. … I was getting really bad headaches again,” she said. “I had to get blood transfusions.”

The answer was painfully obvious. Being a full-time student was an unrealistic prospect, at the mercy of an unforgiving drug regimen.

“I had my plan, and it kind of interrupted everything. I know it’s still coming, so I’m excited for next year, when I’m ready for it,” she said of her intention to begin school in May 2011.

“The chemo hit me pretty hard, and the next time around it’s going to be worse — it’s going to be double in the coming year. … Working in hospitals is probably the worst place to be when your immune system isn’t very good.”

Added to her complex routine of therapy is frequent blood work to check if her fluctuating blood cell counts are within safe limits. 

“I get my blood drawn a lot,” she said. “The blood draws are no big deal, but when they do IVs, it’s not too much fun. … They end up poking me all over the place. My veins are just so little.”

Because it’s so rare, little is known about astroblastoma, particularly how to successfully treat it.

“We see those so rarely that it’s very difficult to describe them. … We get one case every four or five years,” said Dr. John Port, a Mayo Clinic neuroradiologist who has studied the condition. “It’s a really tough diagnosis, if you have one of those in your head.

“Even now, in 2010, we’re not real sure about what to do with them,” Port said. “I don’t think anybody knows anything about the causes. … Like most cancers, they just happen.”

Though Ashley moved last week from her mother’s South Jeffco home to a Greeley apartment she shares with her fiancé, Aaron Berens, she will have to make routine trips back to the metro area for checkups.

  ‘We want to worry about flowers and cake’

Ashley just began a one-month hiatus from treatment but will soon return to a more intense round of chemotherapy that could last a year. It’s a physically devastating process, though she’s attempted to preserve equilibrium through treatments such as acupuncture.

“You’re nervous. Let’s see your tongue,” said Ban Wong, an acupuncturist at UCH’s Center for Integrative Medicine, as Ashley lay on a padded bench. “You tend to worry a lot. I think you care about people around you and how they feel.”

Classical music drifts through the small room, filled with her mother, a friend, hospital staff and journalists.

“I think this is how fish feel,” Ashley said, referring to all the attention.

The centuries-old Chinese therapy helps counteract her nausea and recurrent headaches.

“They can take the symptoms I’m having and put pins in,” she said. “You can’t really feel them, but you know they’re there. … I always feel calm and nice afterward.”

Moving back in with Aaron will be another kind of therapy, for both of them. The pair, who courted in high school, have been together for seven years and have lived together for three.

“Being separated from Ashley was one of the toughest things in our seven years,” said Aaron, who along with Ashley graduated from UNC in May.

“I remember being a kid and being upset that the summer would end. … I was looking forward to August.”

Having to postpone their October wedding may have been the biggest disappointment. The two are rescheduling the ceremony for next year, when Ashley will hopefully have finished treatment.

“We don’t want to worry about blood work,” she said. “We want to worry about flowers and cake.”

But the two are hopeful that returning to her life in Greeley will re-establish a sense of normalcy.

“I feel like, in a sense, we’re dating again,” Aaron said. The two had seen each other mostly on weekends and had largely lived separate lives during Ashley’s weeks of radiation treatment in Lone Tree. Aaron made trips for a few of her treatments, but his full-time internship with the college’s athletic program dominated his weeks. They saw each other on weekends, time when Ashley said she felt normal again.

“I was fine until the doctor said it might be cancerous,” Aaron said about the diagnosis, made shortly after a neurosurgeon excised a 6-centimeter growth from Ashley’s brain. “I broke down. That was probably the worst day of my life.”

But in spite of the devastating diagnosis in her young life, Ashley, who finds comfort in butterflies and the company of friends, has sustained an upbeat disposition.

“She’s always had that spark to her,” Aaron said. “It’s hard to find a positive situation in brain cancer.”

The experience has affirmed her decision to become a nurse, and she views her misfortune as an invaluable lesson in compassion.

“I feel like I’m learning a whole lot,” she said. “It’s going to make me a lot more compassionate, because I’ve seen this from the other end.”

And from a cancer survivor support group, she’s gained perspectives from people who have been through draining months or years of therapy and have lived to share their stories. It’s a bit more hope for someone who spends as much time worrying about her cancer’s effects on her family as on the disease itself.

“What I’m doing now is going to give me my life back,” she said. “I’ve bonded with a few people. They went through everything I went through, and theirs didn’t ever come back. …

“It’s giving me some hope that all of this is going to be worth it in the end.”

 

Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.