Learning to walk again: 'I'm 19, and I have cancer?'
THE WOODLANDS, Texas -- Indian Springs resident Kayla Jefferson has just two wishes this holiday season. One is to be back on her own two feet, and the other is to not be sick.
"I really hope I can be with my family on Christmas," said Kayla, 19. "I don't want to be getting chemo, I don’t want to be in the hospital, I don’t want to have a fever. I just want to be with my family, around the tree, watching the classic movies. We have a family tradition of playing games on Christmas Eve. I want to be there for that."
In the fall of 2016, Kayla was a freshman at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. During phone calls home, she told her mother she had intermittent pain in her leg. They both chalked it up to overuse, fatigue or a simple misstep.
But the pain became persistent, and when she came home to The Woodlands for the summer, Kayla went for an MRI. The diagnosis was osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer most common in children and young adults.
"The word just flew over my head," Kayla said. "I didn't even know what that meant. They said it was a type of cancer … so then you hear the word 'cancer,' and it freezes you in time. I'm 19, and I have cancer? I was so shocked for so long, I couldn't cry, I couldn't be angry."
When the emotions did come, her mother Linda Thompson was right by her side.
"She cried with me," Kayla said. "To find out your only child has cancer? It was as much of a shock to her as to me. My mom is my best friend. It's always been just me and her."
Within five days of the diagnosis, Kayla was at MD Anderson undergoing her first round of chemotherapy.
A few months later, Kayla underwent major surgery to remove the tumor. The 13-inch incision allowed surgeons to insert a metal rod that now runs from her lower hip to her shinbone. "Right now, I'm learning to walk again," Kayla said, "which is fun."
The surgery took place Nov. 13.
"It was on my mom's birthday," Kayla said. "It was the best birthday gift I could give her, because it meant Craig was gone."
"Craig" is what Kayla named her tumor.
Linda said although she certainly wasn't expecting to spend her birthday anxiously awaiting news of her daughter's surgery, it ended up being the best gift she could have possibly received.
"The tumor was removed, and they cleared the margins," Linda said. "So as of now she is cancer free."
But doctors have noticed a small spot in Kayla's lungs. "It could just be nothing," Linda said. "They're monitoring it."
Kayla, a biology major, was not able to return to college in the fall and as a result she no longer has her scholarship, Linda said. The loss of that is one thing, but for a 19-year-old girl, the loss she struggles with the most is more tangible.
"The hardest thing for me with chemo was losing my hair," Kayla said. "You wake up in the morning, lift your head, and your hair is still on the pillow. It was my biggest fear, so I finally just cut my hair off so it wouldn't have that power over me anymore. I got it trimmed into a really cute pixie cut first, but it kept falling out, so I finally just went and got a buzz cut.
"I do have wigs, and they make me feel amazing. It's actually really fun. When you put a wig on, you put on a personality. Like 'oooh, I'm going to be this today, because I'm feeling sassy.'
These days, Kayla said she's rocking the bald look, along with funky scarves or hats when the mood strikes.
"I'm confident in being bald now," Kayla said.
"My daughter loves nice wigs, she loves makeup -- and eyelashes, because she lost her eyelashes too," Linda said. "Those are the things that seem to bring her peace, that calm her down."
Linda, a single mother since Kayla was 1, is doing her best to provide these things for Kayla. She is thankful her job allows her to be with Kayla when she's in the hospital, and at home as she watches Kayla tentatively take her first steps all over again.
"It's important for us to be together," Linda said. "We have lots to be grateful for. The cancer is gone out of Kayla's body. We just don't want it to ever come back."
Kayla has 20 weeks of chemo to go. It's so intense, Kayla has to be hospitalized for 3-5 days during infusions -- her next treatment is scheduled for this week, unless her doctors are willing to hold off until after Christmas.
Either way, there's no doubt Linda will be by her side every moment.
"I'm really grateful that I have my mom through all of this," Kayla said. "When I need comfort, she's there. I couldn't imagine my life without her."
Want to help? Follow Kayla's journey here.