LizStrong fights on

Young Vancouver woman undefeated by battles with bone, breast cancer

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photo“You never hear about the 19-year-old who had breast cancer. I don’t think people understand how it can affect people my age,” said Liz Rowan, cancer survivor.

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photoLiz Rowan shows a scar on her leg Wednesday in Vancouver. Doctors removed part of her leg bone for use in her jaw. At age 16, Rowan was diagnosed with bone cancer in her jaw and blogged about her fight. Three years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer -- the same thing that killed her mom. She had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. She's still undergoing reconstructive surgery for her jaw. She's started a new blog about life after cancer.

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photoPhoto provided by Liz Rowan Vancouver resident Liz Rowan wears her Relay for Life “Survivor” shirt during her senior portrait session in September 2009. Rowan was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2008, at age 16, and breast cancer in 2010, at age 19.

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Liz Rowan’s cancer journey began with her mother.

When Rowan was 6 years old, her mother died from breast cancer at age 32. Several years later, her father successfully battled prostate cancer. Then, a teenaged Rowan was diagnosed with bone cancer in her jaw. Three years after that, at age 19, Rowan was diagnosed with the disease that took her mother’s life.

Today, at age 21, with more than 10 surgeries under her belt and at least a few more in her future, Rowan is ready for life after cancer.

“This cancer journey has been going for a long time, since my mom died,” Rowan said. “I don’t know a lot of people my age who have gone through this.”

“It’s hard, but it doesn’t keep me from getting up in the morning,” she added.

In 2008, about a decade after her mother died, Rowan was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, in her jaw. She completed chemotherapy treatment and underwent surgery to remove a portion of her jaw. Surgeons tried to graft bone from her hip to her jaw. Her body rejected the grafts.

About the time she learned the surgery failed, Rowan was diagnosed with Stage Zero breast cancer. Doctors thought Rowan’s bone cancer had resurfaced as two tumors in her left breast. At age 19, Rowan opted for a bilateral mastectomy, as opposed to a lumpectomy to remove only the tumors, given her personal and family history with cancer.

The mastectomy, Rowan said, was a blessing in disguise. It revealed the breast cancer.

Last spring, Rowan underwent reconstructive breast surgery. She spent many uncomfortable months with expanders in her chest before receiving implants to replace her natural breasts.

In the last five years, Rowan has undergone about 10 surgeries, six of them failed bone grafts for her jaw. Surgeons will try to build up the bone in her jaw one more time in the coming months before starting over with bone from her opposite hip. Once her jaw bone is built up, doctors can replace the teeth she lost.

“My body has just been like meat on a chopper,” Rowan said.

With all of the surgeries come scars, most of which Rowan wears as a badge of honor. The exception are her scars from the mastectomy and reconstruction.

“I’m for scars. I love scars,” she said. “But these ones are a little different.”

Those scars make her feel uncomfortable. They make her worry whether her future boyfriend or husband will be scared away by the permanent reminder of breast cancer.

“People act weird when they find out I’ve been through cancer,” said Rowan, adding that high school classmates and teachers inadvertently made her feel like an outcast, like “the cancer kid.”

Those feelings encouraged Rowan to speak out on behalf of other teens with cancer.

When she was first diagnosed with bone cancer, the Vancouver teen started a blog, LizStrong.com, chronicling her fight.

Now she’s renewed and ready for life after cancer. She recently created a new blog, LizStrongWon.blogspot.com, to collect her thoughts.

For now, she’s moving on by working as a caregiver at an adult family home and spending time with friends and family. She plans to return to Clark College this fall -- she hopes by then her jaw reconstruction surgery will be complete -- and continue her studies. Eventually, Rowan wants to work as a medical receptionist or in medical billing.

She’s also talking with local filmmakers with the hopes of creating a documentary about teenagers with cancer.

“You never hear about the 19-year-old who had breast cancer,” Rowan said. “I don’t think people understand how it can affect people my age.”

More than 21 out of every 100,000 people ages 15 to 19 are diagnosed with cancer every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, about three out of every 100,000 die from the cancer.

At one point, Rowan believed she would be dead by age 25. But she’s since realized that even if the cancer returns, she has a lot of living left to do.

“I don’t let the fear of getting sick stop me,” Rowan said. “If it happens, I’ll deal with it. If it doesn’t, I have all of these opportunities ahead of me.”

“I feel like my fight isn’t over,” Rowan said, “but time will tell.”

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.