‘Keep fighting every single day’: Faced with a rare cancer diagnosis, mom didn’t give up
photo by: Chansi Long/Special to the Journal-World
Ja’Mya Dye was in the middle of her second semester of her freshman year of college when she developed what she thought was a boil, a small irritation that wasn’t yet causing her pain. During spring break, she went to South Padre Island, but when she returned, she scheduled a doctor’s visit because the boil had grown — and it had started to hurt. Her lymph nodes were also swollen.
Dye’s doctor said lymph nodes commonly swell because of boils and didn’t want her to worry. They scheduled a procedure intended to drain the boil, and when it wouldn’t drain, the doctor ordered a biopsy, which came back positive for cancer.
“The cancer had spread into my vagina and hips,” Dye said. “I didn’t even get a chance to freeze my eggs.”
The stakes were high. Dye, then 19, had a young son.
“I remember saying, ‘I have a son. I can’t die,'” she said.
Dye was diagnosed with stage 3 rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She spent most of the next year in the hospital receiving chemotherapy treatments.
Anne Stanton, a clinical nurse specialist, grew close with Dye while administering care.
“I met Ja’Mya on one of her first visits to KU on April 30 of 2018, and she promptly vomited,” Stanton said. “That was a cue to me right off the bat that she had a lot of anxiety about her diagnosis and care … She was just extraordinarily anxious about her treatment and became nauseated in the parking garage. We had to treat her for her anxiety to help prevent that.”
Hannah Reed, Dye’s best friend, drove her to Kansas City and stayed nights with her at the hospital. Reed recalls waking up in the hospital the morning after Dye had her chemo port placed.
“Ja’Mya and I were just sleeping, and they woke us up, and her treatment team were all in the room,” Reed said. “They had a thick binder outlining what treatments she was getting for what day for the next year. (Her son) Cameron was playing with his car, and she was trying to parent him while she was finding out when she was going to be getting chemo. It was overwhelming.”
Instead of taking her final exams, Dye had to drop out of college and begin chemotherapy treatments on May 8, 2018. She documented some of her struggle online.
“At chemo early this morning,” Dye wrote. “I just had a complete breakdown. The anxiety is getting the best of me. Trying to keep a strong mind.”
A former track athlete, Dye started to shed weight at an alarming rate. She had what’s called anticipatory nausea, which would cause her to vomit even before entering the hospital.
“She was constantly throwing up,” Reed said. “She couldn’t keep anything down. In the car, we always had to have vomit bags. At the hospital they gave us little vouchers for food, and she didn’t want any of her vouchers. We would go down to the cafeteria, walking around with an IV pull — I’m sure we looked super disheveled — and nothing looked good at all.”
Dye spent her third Mother’s Day as a mom in a hospital bed. Sick from chemo, she tried to sleep, but rest was beyond reach because she was in so much pain.
“Please pray for me to get a good night’s sleep and rise back up in the morning and for the pain to stop, because I can’t take this,” Dye wrote.
Dye’s son was not allowed to stay the night during her four-day stays. Being deprived of his presence took a mental toll.
“The hardest part was having to be away from my son since his dad isn’t in his life,” Dye said.
Cameron stayed nights with Dye’s mom. But even when Dye could be with her son, she had to be careful not to hurt herself while playing with and parenting him. Picking him up and roughhousing were off the table.
“Even a cut could affect her treatment,” said Katrice Woods, Dye’s mother. “Whenever Ja’Mya had a cold we had to automatically take her to the hospital, no matter what time. She reached a stage where she could no longer get treatment because her weight was so low. She had to be placed on a feeding tube. During this time, she came to me saying she didn’t know if she wanted to do it anymore, the pain was so bad. I said, ‘no, you have a child.'”
Dye’s medical team told her that if she couldn’t keep food down, she would need to have a tube inserted into her stomach. She’d already had a temporary one in her mouth and nose. A gastric tube would completely bypass the throat, giving her food, fluids and medication without the need to swallow.
“I forced myself to eat after they told me that,” Dye said.
On Jan. 12, 2019, Dye’s cancer went into remission. Dye still had to complete her treatment plan, which meant several more months of chemo and a month and a half of painful radiation. Now, with her cancer in remission for more than two years, Dye still has to have anxiety-inducing scans every five months. Scan days are hard days. Before each scan, she takes a Valium. She has nightmares about her cancer coming back.
Doctors once thought Dye’s cancer had returned. They scheduled her for another biopsy. Within two days they notified her that it was only scar tissue.
“People think when you beat cancer everything goes away. It doesn’t. I still go to sleep thinking about cancer and I wake up thinking about cancer,” Dye said. “I still worry I’m going to relapse. Even when you’re sure everything is going to be alright, there is that fear in the back of your mind.”
After 132 chemotherapy bags, and almost two months of radiation, Dye is equipped to give advice to anyone who finds themselves with a cancer diagnosis.
“It’s going to be hard as hell and you’re going to ask ‘why?’ so many times, but find something to fight for and go off that,” Dye said. “Keep fighting every single day until you hear the words, ‘you’re cancer free,’ and you’ll look back and smile so hard and know you fought the hardest fight of your life.”