Cancer sets survivor on career path

Dream of being nurse gains focus after diagnosis, loss of leg

Published:

 
photoChristina Jensen wanted to be a nurse since she was in sixth grade. Losing her leg to bone cancer a few years ago failed to end that dream, and instead informed her decision to become a nurse practitioner.

(/The Columbian)

Buy this photo

Get support

The amputee support group meets on the second Thursday of every month at Collier’s Prosthetics, 5115 N.E. 94th Ave. Call 503-702-8304 or email mydebb@msn.com.

Christina Jensen admits to being stubborn.

“I get a goal in my mind, and I stick with it,” the 25-year-old said. “I don’t change too much.”

She paused.

“As you can see,” she said, grinning.

It’s easy to see nothing can dissuade Jensen from her goals. Not pain. Not cancer. Not multiple surgeries. Not even the loss of a limb.

The young woman just graduated from Clark College’s nursing program, despite the fact that she was diagnosed with a bone cancer shortly before she got her high school diploma. Jensen has wanted to be a nurse since grade school; the illness only sharpened her focus on which kind of patients she wants to help.

A broken ankle

In the summer after her junior year in high school, Jensen went to New York City with other students from Vancouver’s I Have A Dream program. The students were from poor neighborhoods and had received support since elementary school to stay on the path toward a college degree.

During the trip to the Big Apple, Jensen noticed her right ankle was slightly swollen and tender. The swelling didn’t go away. The pain got worse. Finally, an X-ray showed she’d broken her ankle. She was fitted with a walking cast and sent home.

But the ankle wouldn’t heal, and doctors eventually sent her to get an MRI.

“They called me the same day,” Jensen said.

It was January 2005 — five months before she was to graduate from high school.

The voice on the phone told Jensen she had a tumor inside her tibia — or shin bone.

“It still didn’t make me suspect cancer,” Jensen said. “It might be benign and they could just take it out.”

But a specialist in Seattle took that hope away when he diagnosed osteosarcoma.

All Jensen could think of in her upset and confusion was that cancer patients lose their hair. She didn’t suspect that three long years of pain, repeated surgeries and the toughest decision of her life lay ahead.

Jensen went through chemotherapy and a bone graft — replacing the tumorous piece with donor bone. Then there was good news — she’d beaten the cancer.

But the pain was far from over. Her body rejected the bone graft. Jensen underwent so many surgeries over the next couple of years that she lost count.

And she wasn’t sitting at home during the rounds of treatment.

School comes first

Jensen first decided she was going to be a nurse when she was in sixth grade. The choice seemed natural — she’d always wanted to take care of people, she said.

She never personally knew someone in the profession. Nobody in her family had gone to college. But even then, once she’d formed a plan, she stuck by it.

As soon as Jensen recovered from the effects of chemotherapy, she entered Clark College in spring 2006. While she was chipping away at the classes required to get into the nursing program — biology, anatomy and the like — her ankle kept breaking, as her body rejected the bone. She had to use crutches to walk and was in constant, intense pain.

But she didn’t skip any tests.

“We were planning the surgeries around school,” Jensen said. “I always made sure that the doctors knew school came first.”

Each surgery required travel to Seattle. Those trips also brought her in contact with a kind of nurse Jensen soon decided to emulate — the nurse practitioner.

These highly trained nurses are licensed to diagnose illnesses and design treatments, much like a physician.

But the procedures in Seattle didn’t bring Jensen any relief and didn’t get her off the crutches. Jensen was getting worried about her professional plans.

“How was I going to be able to walk around the hospital (as a nurse)?” she said. “I couldn’t.”

By late 2007, she knew something had to change. Years earlier, doctors had brought up amputation as one possible treatment.

“I said, ‘No way are you doing that,’” Jensen said. “But three years later, I’m considering it.”

Jensen heard about a support group for amputees and went to talk to them before allowing doctors to cut off her leg.

It was an unusual scenario for the support group, said Dale Bowlin, one of its members.

“Usually, there’s no premeditation,” Bowlin said. “It’s the first time I recall someone coming in while they still had the arm or leg.”

The men and women told her about living with prostheses. Jensen went for four months.

The advice she got from those who were missing a limb — that she’d be able to move around just fine — made all the difference.

“I didn’t think I could do nursing if I kept my leg,” Jensen said.

In April 2008, Jensen walked down a hospital corridor on her own two feet for the last time in her life.

She heeded the amputees’ advice and asked the doctors to fit her with a provisional prosthesis at the end of surgery, so she wouldn’t see an outline of just one foot under the sheet when she woke up.

As soon as she got out of the hospital, Jensen signed up for summer classes at Clark to catch up. Within three months, the leg was healed enough for her to be fitted with a prosthesis.

Kids with cancer

In 2010, Jensen had completed her prerequisites and started nurse’s training at Clark. She was so used to the new leg by then that she often forgot it was there. The pain was gone.

Today, it’s virtually impossible to detect her medical history from how she moves around. That was evident when Jensen started her rotations in local hospitals as part of her training.

“A lot of teachers, nurses and patients didn’t know,” she said.

She made sure to have an extra hand on deck when she had to lift patients. Other than that, she felt completely safe doing her job.

“I don’t feel like I have a disability,” Jensen said.

And that’s good enough for her to get a nursing license, said the folks who issue them.

Jensen is studying to get her state license as a registered nurse. In the application for it, she’ll be asked if there are any medical conditions that keep her from practicing the nursing profession with reasonable skill and safety, said Paula Meyer, executive director of the state commission that issues the licenses.

“If she’s made it through the nursing program (in college) and passed, she can honestly answer ‘No,’” Meyer said.

Jensen plans to attend Washington State University Vancouver starting this fall to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing. Then she’ll get her master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner.

When Jensen started her path to nursing, she wasn’t sure what her specialty would be. But the many days and nights spent at Seattle Children’s Hospital brought those plans into focus.

“The nurses there were amazing,” Jensen said.

Jensen wants to work as a nurse in pediatric oncology. She can offer cancer-stricken young patients something not too many nurses can — personal experience.

“I would hope that would make me a better nurse,” Jensen said.

For her rotations through hospitals during her training, Jensen worked in several departments, including oncology.

She also worked in one area of nursing she’d never thought about — hospice, caring for patients in the last days of their lives.

“I was really comfortable in it, and I wasn’t expecting that,” she said. “There was so much compassion and caring I was able to show.”

Jensen loved the work. But in hospice, she encountered an emotional stumbling block — tending to cancer patients in their last days.

“That’s hard,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “I started thinking about why I lived after cancer and this person didn’t.”

But that emotional question aside, Jensen credits the last six years with shaping her as a person and a nurse.

“I look at the whole thing as positive,” Jensen said. “It’s made me the person that I am.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.