Getting a leg up on cancer


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By Matthew Le Blanc

Looking at her now, you wouldn’t think one person could have gone through so much in one lifetime. Not only did she find the strength to make it through her battle with cancer, she also wears the scars that riddle her body proudly, which serve as constant reminders of her past.

Always seen with a smile on her face, 25-year-old Adela Janczak has led anything but a normal life. Her numerous operations have changed her life forever, especially with her ability to walk. In spite of all her troubles, she has learned that some clichés are nothing but true.

“Laughter really is the best medicine,” laughs Janczak. “I’m always making people laugh and joking around, because honestly, no matter what you go through, what you might lose, scars, handicaps, everything, if you can’t laugh at it and make a joke about it, what the hell can you do?”

In September of 1991, at the age of six, Janczak was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer found in bone or soft tissue. The road leading up to this discovery, however, took a lot longer than expected.

“The doctors had misdiagnosed me for one year prior to finding the tumor,” recalls Janczak. “I saw eight different doctors, each one with a different story. Some saying that I was making it up in my head to get attention because my mother was going through colon cancer at the time or [diagnosing] it as arthritis.”

As they travelled from doctor to doctor, each one saying something different, Janczak was in excruciating pain. She would wake up in the middle of night screaming in agony over an intense pain in her right leg. She often had difficulty walking and would spend her days lying in bed. Her family knew something was seriously wrong but didn’t know what to do.

“We took her to everybody hoping someone would figure this out,” says Karen Wills, Janczak’s mother. “You can’t imagine how frustrating it is to see your child in pain and not have answers as to why this is happening.”

Finally, a year later, an x-ray technician accidentally put an x-ray a fraction of an inch too high and discovered a shadow they didn’t previously notice. At their discretion, the technician took more x-rays of Janczak’s leg and eventually discovered the tumor along her right femur.

From that day forward, the hospital became her second home. They began giving her heavy doses of chemotherapy right away at McMaster Hospital, and later at Sick Kids in Toronto. Out of a week, she would spend four straight days admitted to the hospital and would return home for two. This routine lasted until she was eight-years-old. Wills never forgets how hard it was to watch her daughter’s little body go through such a rough treatment.

“I can remember brushing her hair after her baths and clumps of her beautiful blond hair would just fall to the ground,” says Wills, who wishes no parent to ever have to experience what she did. “It was awful. She was completely bald in about two weeks… It’s tough when they’re so young.”

As the side effects of chemo became worse, Janczak found herself bed-ridden from the constant pain, dizziness and vomiting. She says at one point the chemo was so advanced that it almost killed her. The treatments had to be stopped early since her body couldn’t take it anymore. However, things were about to become even more complicated.

Doctors performed a procedure that removes a significant amount of a tumor from the affected area, ultimately reducing the number of cancerous cells to a more manageable level. The procedure failed. The bone was then removed entirely and replaced with two donor bones, which her body rejected. Concerned nothing was working, Sick Kids suggested a new experimental operation that would transplant her left leg’s fibula into her right thigh. The operation would require two doctors; one to replace the bone, while the other reconnected the veins and arteries. Since her left leg would lose support, they would also need to take half of her left hip and place it in her left ankle. Not having any other options, Janczak and her family decided to undergo the procedure.

Sixteen hours later, the operation was a success but left Janczak’s right leg rigid and unable to bend. Something as basic as walking became a struggle for her. She could no longer ride a bike, sit in the backseat of a car or enjoy amusement park rides. Even sitting down in a chair became a task since her leg needed to “stick out.”

In total, Janczak has had 23 operations throughout the years. Among them she has had two bone transplants, a bone graph, a few biopsies and numerous blood transfusions. She has also had a device installed beneath her skin to help administer chemotherapy. “To be honest, the worst one I’ve had was a few years ago when I had my tonsils taken out. Even through I’ve had so many, it was the worst.”

Because of her health problems, having a normal childhood was out of the question. She missed out on so much and says her “childhood was the hospital,” claiming to know McMaster “like the back of [her] hand.” She ended up missing most of the first six years of school and relied heavily on her family for support.

“They are all amazing and I’m so lucky to actually have a close family,” says Janczak, who knows how fortunate she is. “My mom’s sister, Nancy, and her husband actually became like a second set of parents to my brother… and my cousin, Eva, and I are more like sisters. My family never treated me as if I was sick so everything seemed normal. My brother Jett, who is three years older than me, knew what was going on and I’m sure it was hard on him not having my parents around.”

Janczak’s mother never left her side and would often spend nights sleeping in a hospital chair, while her father travelled to Toronto each night to see his little girl.

The ramifications of all her operations have wreaked havoc on her body, leaving her with scars and serious side effects like colitis, acid reflux disease and cardiomyopathy (deterioration of the heart muscle). Being in and out of the hospital for years has also made it difficult to maintain a social life.

“At the end of grade nine I developed bad post-traumatic stress disorder and got insanely bad anxiety. I ended up losing touch with all of my friends and had to finish high school through correspondence. The past two years is really when I’ve come back into the social circle.”

Things have been looking up for Janczak who hopes the worst is finally behind her. She visits the cancer clinic every six months for testing to help keep her mind at ease and to make sure if anything were to resurface they would have plenty of time to take care of it.

Despite her rough medical history, Janczak’s attitude remains positive. With everything that has happened in her life she looks forward to what the future brings.

“I’m still working on my anxiety, which is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” says Janczak. “I’m also in school part-time for Make-up Artistry at Mohawk College, which is something I love. My goals are small right now. Finish up school and keep enjoying the company of family and friends.”

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