Xterra legend Jamie Whitmore was never as much a hero as she is right now fighting cancer for her life.
In part two of this oral history, the strength of Jamie Whitmore’s life force shines through. In the midst of her catastrophic bout with cancer, she was doing more than dreaming of the future. Instead of submitting to the terrible pain and falling into a perfectly understandable paralyzing depression, she and her family rallied to bank on an expensive procedure to harvest her eggs to provide for the birth of much-desired children after destructive radiation therapy. It is a sign of her character that, with the help of faith, prayer and her husband, father and friends, she remained determined to make the most of whatever life could bring her after cancer. It is a tribute to her courage that when she realized her sport was taken away, and the pain was highest, she carefully calculated and guarded how she could retain the maximum physicality and sense of adventure.
PART TWO: BANKING ON THE FUTURE IN DARK TIMES
Every day for the next three weeks, I walked until I could find a local physical therapist. One day I received an email from a gentleman in Folsom who offered to treat me. He is very smart and knows his nerves. Rob Kapinsky owns Body Concepts in Folsom, California, about 35 miles from my home in Elk Grove and I drive to see him once a week.
Harvesting eggs for a future family
Around this time, I went in for a post-op check-up and the doctors told me I would have to undergo radiation therapy and that would most likely damage my left ovary. So, if I wanted to have kids, I had to hurry up and harvest eggs. The next month, they pumped me full of a bunch of drugs. The goal was to get as many eggs as possible to mature, retrieve the eggs, and freeze them. The problem is that your ovaries swell up to the size of grapefruits. It's painful, especially after you have had a surgery in that area. You need a shot every day in the morning and at night. I couldn't do it myself, so I had family members give me the shot. I opted for the leg instead of my stomach or bum because the whole area was numb.
The procedure was successful and they were able to retrieve 16 eggs. Afterwards I was in so much pain. I felt like I was punched in the stomach and left with a super huge bloated feeling. I was barely able to eat and I had to drink water to flush out the hormones. When I have a child, he or she will know how much they were wanted. ‘Yep, you were a very expensive kid.’ Insurance did not cover any of this. My grandma and my in-laws along with some donated money helped us pay for it. In the end it was all well worth it!
Radiation and radical surgery
I started radiation in June. After four days, they called me into the doctor's office and told me that another tumor had grown back. In just two and a half months, it was already the same size as the first one. I had to have another surgery to remove it.
This cancer I was dealing with is pretty rare. Nerve tumors themselves are not uncommon but they are usually benign. They grow and are removed, never really being that serious. It is something like three percent of nerve tumors are cancerous. Just my luck! Because I am so petite, mine grew through the pelvic bone and killed the sciatic nerve the first time. That’s why I lost the use of my foot. But because the tumor grew back, they were very worried it would spread. This time, they wanted a larger margin. . . they wanted to take most of my glute muscle and whatever the tumor was touching.
I learned that after the first surgery they gave me 16 pints of blood -- twice the volume of all the blood in my entire body. Any time they operate on a sarcoma tumor, they like to hit it with radiation at the same time, but I’d lost too much blood. I was on the table for nine and a half hours and they needed to be able to close up so I never got hit with the radiation. I think it is one of the reasons it grew back.
Losing that swift graceful run to an aggressive sarcoma
Looking back, in my mind, it was better that I lost the use of my foot the first time around. How cruel to save the nerve and then two months later they would have to tell me, “Sorry, we have take it away.” That would have been far more devastating. This way I was prepared. I knew going into the second surgery there would not be more nerve damage. But this time I would lose a good chunk of my left glute muscle. They cut my radiation short. After 26 days (instead of 30) I went back into surgery. I had a new nerve doctor this time around because it was so close to my spine. Yes they have different doctors for different nerves. They wanted to make sure they got all of the tumor this time around to prevent it from paralyzing me completely.
When your entire sciatic nerve is missing, generally it’s not only your foot that doesn't work but most of your leg. I do not have control of my calf, foot or most of my hamstring which is what makes your knee bend. Still I was able to bend my knee. The doctors believe the nerves that control my quad took over and helped my knee to bend. On paper I should have a walking prosthetic that goes up to my hip and I should be walking around stiff legged! What a miracle.
Second surgery for a second tumor
The second surgery took twelve and a half hours. They took pretty much all of my left glute muscle, one of my sacral nerves (they control your bladder, luckily you have two) and they took part of my tailbone. They described the tumor as having fingers that were latching onto my tailbone. So the mission the second time around was search and destroy. They went in and took whatever the tumor was touching. I came out of this one in a lot more pain than the first. I was unable to do anything other than lay on my right side for 4-6 weeks. The incision on my left bum needed to heal so I couldn't lay or sit on it. I spent, seriously, the next 4 weeks laying on my right side -- good thing I always sleep on my side.
It was harder for me to get to a standing position this time around but I was walking quicker. I wasn’t on a lot of painkillers, but I did have an epidural. Once they took that out I noticed my knee and hip flexor hurt when I walked. Without my glute muscle my quad and knee were on overload. They worked overtime to allow my entire leg to function. Most of the doctors said your body is resilient and finds ways to compensate to function. That’s me. I am the type of person that doesn't settle for things. I’m going find a way.
Coping with pain by prayer
During all of this I was coping with a lot of different issues. I could not pass gas. It was trapped in the colon area, causing severe pain. I couldn't eat or go to the bathroom. It was so much worse this time around. I finally broke down and cried. I asked Courtney to put hands on me and pray because that was the only thing that was going to help! Time needed to pass to make things better.
Eventually, it did.
Whenever you lose a big chunk of muscle, they put drains in to help drain the cavity. Basically you have a wound inside, and drains are the way to get all the fluid out and not get infected. I had two of them in my left leg. I had one removed before I left the hospital and the second was removed a week later during my check-up.
The weird part was on the way home from having my drain removed I started vomiting really bad. I thought I had food poisoning until the next day when I woke up with a temperature of 101. The day after that it was 102. The left side of my lower back was in severe pain. It was harder and harder to walk. When my temperature hit 103, we rushed off to San Francisco. After testing, they found I had a kidney and blood infection and I was septic. By Saturday my temperature was 104 and I cannot recall half the day. I woke up and found myself surrounded by cold packs. This was at the end of July, early August. They had to put two drains back in me to continue to drain the abscesses (the cavities) but they also had to stick a nephrostomy tube in my kidney to allow it to drain properly.
I was really sick and since they didn't know when the kidney infection started they were scared my heart might be damaged. They wanted to do an EKG – stick a tube down my throat to check my heart. That was one of the worst things ever. The first time when I woke up, there was a breathing tube sticking down my throat. When I woke up after the second surgery. There was a huge IV-catheter sticking in a main artery in my neck. When they removed it, they applied severe pressure for 20 minutes.
The pain during the echocardiogram ranked right up with those two. They had to numb my throat, making it hard to swallow so they could stick the long tube down my throat. I felt like I was choking the entire time. They kept me in the hospital two weeks to make sure the antibiotics were working. When I finally went home, within three days I started vomiting again. This time I couldn't even keep fluids down. They wanted me back in the hospital. For the next few months it was back and forth, sometimes for a few days and sometimes for a couple weeks. They didn't know what was wrong. They performed all sorts of tests and their best conclusion was a bone infection.
Too skinny, too much pain
My weight dropped from 120 pounds to 98. My Dad said I looked like I had an eating disorder. I was that skinny – skin and bone. My knees looked anorexic. You could see the bone protruding. Looking back at pictures now, I say, “Oh my, it really was that bad.”
To treat the bone infection I needed a pick line inserted in my left arm. This way they can hook up in antibiotic bag through an IV 24 hours a day for 4-5 weeks. I had to carry the IV bag everywhere I went. It was so heavy! Oh my goodness, I was so weak I could barely walk. As skinny as I was, my bad leg remained completely swollen. I was unable to wear my walking brace so we had to go back to the Ace bandage for a couple months. I could barely walk to the mailbox around the corner, but I walked as much as I could for the next five months.
It was really miserable. I had been so positive after the first surgery. I tried to remain as positive as possible, but it was becoming more and more difficult. When you keep getting beat down so hard and have no energy and you can't eat or keep fluids down, it’s difficult to be positive all the time. I have never felt closer to God. I spent all my time praying to Him, asking for a better tomorrow. Could tomorrow be just a little better than today?