Laylah Sandoval began 2018 with a cancer diagnosis, but she started out 2019 with the disease in the rearview mirror.
The Hermiston High School student, 16, finished up chemotherapy for osteosarcoma in September, and her first three-month scan came back clear in December. The quiet teenager, hair still close-cropped after losing it all to chemotherapy, wants those who might face similarly scary news in the future to know there is hope.
“It’s hard when you first hear it and you’re going through it, but just know that there are people out there that care about you and you are going to get better,” she said.
In the summer of 2017, she started noticing an occasional pain in one of her legs. The pain turned more consistent as the year went on, and by December she was limping.
Her parents, noticing her limp, wondered about taking her to see a doctor. But she shrugged it off, convinced it was an injury that would heal on its own.
Just before Christmas, however, she was four-wheeling with her cousins and injured the same leg that had been bothering her for months. Her mother took her to an urgent care clinic, where a doctor noted her leg was swollen and hot to the touch. They referred her to Good Shepherd Medical Center for an X-ray, and later in the day someone from Good Shepherd called and said she needed to come back in immediately.
Sandoval went back with her mother, Marisa Rodriguez, and they heard news no one wants to hear: There appeared to be a tumor in a bone in her leg, and there was a good chance it was malignant.
“Of course that’s scary,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t have any words to explain it. It felt like I couldn’t breathe. You take that moment to cry, but then as a mother you obviously have to say, ‘What can I do to fix it?’”
Sandoval said although it took a couple of weeks to get a biopsy and an official diagnosis, she had a gut feeling it was cancer the moment she heard she had a tumor.
“I was scared, but really I was more shocked,” she said. “I didn’t know what to think.”
The next nine months Sandoval went through three types of chemotherapy and a surgery to remove the tumor once it had shrunk. She rotated three weeks at a time in Hermiston, then two weeks at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.
The chemo made her too tired to do much but sleep during her Portland stays. She missed one semester of school and felt too sick to manage more than two meals a day. Her hair all fell out — something her mom said was hard to take on top of everything else.
Rodriguez, along with Sandoval’s father Adrian Sandoval, brother Isaiah, 15, and various extended family members, kept her company and brought her food when she felt a rare craving for something.
“They would try to make me laugh, and help me not think about it,” she said.
Support from her family helped her, she said. The experience forever deepened her relationship with them and helped her understand that she has people in her life who will always be there for her no matter what.
Her family, in return, were strengthened by other things, from their faith to supportive employers who let them take time off. Rodriguez said several charitable groups also helped the family out with things like free stays at the Ronald McDonald House and a trip to the Children’s Cancer Association’s “caring cabin” on the Oregon coast during their “life-changing” experience.
In September, Sandoval finally got to ring a special bell at Doernbecher that celebrates the end of treatment. A couple of weeks later, when she was feeling stronger, she had a small party with friends and family to celebrate remission.
Both Rodriguez and Sandoval said they want to help spread awareness of cancer, particularly common childhood cancers such as osteosarcoma, in the future.
“You see a lot of breast cancer awareness, but not children’s cancer awareness,” Rodriguez said.
She wants more people to know the signs — such as a spot on the skin that remains unusually hot to the touch — and to follow their instincts if they think their child needs to see a doctor.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh you’ll be fine,’” she said. “The guilt kicks in and you say, ‘Why didn’t we go in sooner?’ But everything happens for a reason, and what happened, happened. They still caught it early and everything is OK.”
Sandoval said she still has a few lingering effects — she has to take a heart medication for now as her organs repair themselves from the effects of the chemo and she has to make up the semester of school she missed. But she survived, and she is stronger because of it.