Cancer can't do backflips, but Katie Baden can. That has been the rallying cry for former South Carolina cheerleader Katie Baden, who was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia on September 13, 2013. As she approaches the one year anniversary of her diagnosis, Katie is now in remission, but still has battles to face.
"I am by no means complaining that I'm not living a life of normalcy yet, because the life I'm living certainly beats living a life with cancer," Baden said. "I have been extremely blessed with support and prayers."
Taken By Surprise
Baden, a 2011 graduate who is now 25 years old, was taken by surprise by the diagnosis. To make matters worse, she had to have heart surgery before she was told she had the disease. A sinus infection that simply wouldn't go away prompted a visit to her local doctor. After several tests and the lack of improvement in her condition, the doctor took a chest x-ray which led to the radiologist's discovery of some irregular lymph nodes and they soon found other issues.
The support I received from my Gamecock family was unreal.
Doctors found 800 cubic centimeters of water had built up around her heart which needed to be drained immediately. That put her in the intensive care unit for almost a week before moving into the blood marrow transplant unit.
"I had no chest pain or anything," Baden recalled. "And they said anyone with that much fluid around the heart could normally just fall over and die."
Unlike many ICU patients, Katie was fully awake and aware upon arrival.
"I'm sitting up texting, talking to my friends and laughing because I really have no idea what's going on," Baden said. "At first they thought it was Hodgkin's, but it was leukemia because I had it in all of my blood. They said it was a case they don't see a lot of because I had a mass and it was in my blood. I asked them if they could just remove the mass, but they said they couldn't because it was in such a dangerous spot near my heart and lungs."
Her doctors felt confident that chemotherapy would reduce the mass and explained the process and side effects of the treatment. Because she is still young with a strong body, she was placed on a pediatric regimen of chemotherapy, which is much stronger than doses given to older adults. Baden's cancer was so aggressive that chemotherapy began just two days later to give her the best chance of survival.
"The day we found out, I called my hairdresser and she came up to the hospital, and I donated 10 and a half inches of my hair, and both of my sisters did as well," Baden said. "Two days later, my hair started falling out. I got a little nauseous at first too."
Katie underwent five rounds of the chemotherapy from an I.V.
"I think a few of the hardest things while in the hospital were not seeing my niece turn one, and not standing by one of my best friend's side at her wedding a week after the diagnosis," Baden said.
On the Road to Recovery
With family and friends around her, Baden was told she was in remission in April.
"It was a good feeling," Baden said. "Everyone around me jumped up, and they were all crying. I just sat on the bed, cried and looked around. Just like when I was diagnosed with cancer, it all just seems unreal. I didn't know what to think because I had PET scan a week before because I had found a huge lump under my arm pit, so we were really scared, but there was no cancer."
Life is still not easy for Katie Baden. When her white blood cell counts were back up to acceptable levels, she began her maintenance chemotherapy, which she will continue for the next two and half years. With her immune system very weak, she is often confined to her apartment so as not to risk infection.
"My body is not reacting well to the maintenance chemo," Baden said. "I'm reacting to it with a lot of pain so I've had to see a lot of doctors. I thought that once I was in remission everything would be normal and I'd be able to go to work every day, but it's not like that."
In addition to the physical toll her battle with leukemia has had on her body, there are also psychological battles. Baden was told that there is a 25 percent chance of leukemia coming back once in remission.
"I've become more emotional about it because after you go into remission, it's really hard not to think the cancer came back," Baden said. "My hips and my back were hurting the other day, and I started thinking the cancer was in my bone marrow. The doctors said `no,' but they said it's common to have those fears."
When she is up to it, Baden is able to go into work for a few hours per day or even work from home.
"Some weeks I feel so terrible or have so many doctor's appointments that I can't work at all," Baden said. "Sometimes my white blood count is so low that I just stay in my apartment or wear a mask if I venture somewhere like the grocery store. I still have to get blood transfusions and platelet transfusions."
Support from Near and Far
Through it all, Baden has had tremendous support from family and friends from home as well as from her Gamecock family with cheerleading coach Erika Goodwin and current and former team members.
"I've had so much support," Baden said. "When I was in the hospital there were constantly people there. The support I received from my Gamecock family was unreal. I still read the text messages from girls I've never met, and the notes on the huge card they sent, and of course watch the videos they sent. Erika is an incredible woman. She kept in touch with me through my battle and I couldn't ask for a better coach or team."
As word spread about her diagnosis last year, she also received tremendous support from collegiate and professional cheerleading squads around the country through visits, cards and social media outlets.
"I never thought it was going to turn into a world-wide cheerleading thing where they sent pictures and cards and videos from all over," Baden said. "Auburn sent me a set of their pom-poms and other memorabilia. Clemson sent me a huge card, which is just so cool to see our big rivals do that in a time of need. I just felt so blessed that so many people did that for me."
Baden is looking forward to getting her blood counts at the proper levels consistently so she can continue to have the necessary maintenance chemotherapy kept on schedule. She is eager to get the back and leg pain under control so she can begin exercising and other activities that she used to take for granted.
"I definitely have to get into the gym so I can do a backflip," Katie said with a laugh. "It's just going to take a little while."
To paraphrase a cheer Baden and others chant at Williams-Brice Stadium, "Gooooooo Katie. Fight. Win."