Survivor Since: Febuary 2016
Diagnosis: Burkitt Lymphoma
Missouri Cancer Care Team:
Treatment: Chemotherapy Treatment
When looking in awe at her baby girl Charlotte (Charlie), Tanna Niemeier thinks something that a lot of new parents do: “I can’t believe we created this.”
But Tanna’s gratitude for Charlie – now 7 months old – runs a little deeper than most. During her pregnancy, Tanna (and Charlie in utero) went through two rounds chemotherapy as Tanna fought a rare, aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma called Burkitt Lymphoma. Tanna credits her pregnancy for discovering her cancer and putting her on the path to treatment and recovery.
“She’s a little miracle,” Tanna says about her healthy, full-of-laughter, now 7-month-old daughter. “She saved my life.”
In Sept. 2015, Tanna and her husband Zach, were still newlyweds when they found out Tanna was pregnant.
“No morning sickness – it was an easy pregnancy,” she says about first few months of pregnancy. Her main discomfort was hemorrhoids and constipation, issues that she attributed to “the joys of pregnancy.”
Around her sixth month, however, things started to get progressively worse – fast – and at 27 weeks, she woke up knowing that something wasn’t right. Later that day, she underwent emergency hemorrhoid removal surgery. Two days later, she was at home, recovering, when her OB/GYN called.
“She said, ‘I want to make sure you and your husband are together,’” Tanna remembers. The pathology report showed cancer. Tanna handed the phone to Zach, unable to finish the call. What she had thought were symptoms of pregnancy were actually symptoms of Burkitt Lymphoma, one of the fastest growing types of lymphoma. Burkitt’s is not hereditary, and Tanna describes her diagnosis as a “fluke, the luck of the draw.”
“At first, when we found out, it was hard,” she says about processing the news with Zach. “We had two days of a pity party, being scared, being mad.” Then Zach told her they were getting out of the house and asked what she wanted to do. They got pedicures together. They took their dogs for a walk by the lake. They prepared themselves for the fight ahead. “We knew if we were going to sit and be mad, it would make it worse,” she said. “We knew we were going to beat it.”
Tanna immediately saw the staff at Missouri Cancer Associates (MCA) to determine her course of treatment. One of the first challenges was determining the stage of her very aggressive cancer, the tests they could run limited because of her pregnancy. They conducted partial CT scans and collaborated with other physicians, sending Tanna to St. Louis for additional assessment.
“One of the things I love about MCA is how very clear they were about how rare this cancer was,” Tanna says. “They wanted to get everyone involved that they could for the best care for me and the baby.” They discussed early delivery at around 30 weeks, but ultimately decided to push forward with chemotherapy before delivery. Two rounds of chemotherapy, with a three-week break in between. For each round, Tanna spent five straight days at Boone Hospital, with Zach by her side the entire time. “Surprisingly, I felt good,” she says. “We took lots of walks around the hospital and looked at each treatment like a little vacation.”
Zach taught himself how to juggle. They took naps. They watched a lot of cable TV, and they waited for the chemotherapy to work and their baby to grow bigger. When Tanna was 35 weeks pregnant, her doctors were ready for her to deliver. Zach and Tanna welcomed their 5 lb. 11 oz. baby girl into the world on April 25, 2016. “We were prepared for the worst,” Tanna says. “But she came out pink and screaming.”
Their medical team was ready to take Charlotte to the neonatal intensive care, but the precaution was unnecessary. “They had said there was a chance she could be bald,” says Tanna, who lost her own hair after round two of chemo. “But she came out like a hairy monkey … She was perfect.” Two days later, Tanna began her third and final round of chemotherapy. Charlotte was discharged from the hospital but the family stayed together – Zach, Tanna and their daughter – while Tanna completed her treatment.
One month later, a PET scan confirmed the chemo’s success: Tanna was cancer-free.
“Between Boone Hospital and MCA, we had the best doctors and nurses. They were super kind. I’m still in contact with them, but they probably come to see Charlie,” Tanna jokes. She gives credit to how well the teams communicated and worked together, including Dr. Balakrishnan (Dr. “Bala”), her OB/GYN Dr. Elizabeth Wilson from Women’s Health Associates and more.
“They all had the attitude – what can we do for a happy ending, so I could be here for my daughter,” says Tanna. Charlie measured a little small on the growth chart at first but is catching up. Despite the chemotherapy drugs she shared in utero with Tanna, Charlie has never shown any side effects.
Tanna’s world is now filled with baby giggles and laughter as Charlie continues to grow and develop. “She’s such a Daddy’s girl,” Tanna says about her little girl. “I see her eyes light up when he comes in the room, and I think – we created her. We did that.”
Missouri Cancer Associates is proud to count Tanna as a member of their staff. She joined the MCA as an insurance specialist in August 2016.
New patient referrals to MCA may be made online.