Tutus, teddy bears, super heroes and cancer treatment
Diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, Jenna Rojas didn’t let chemotherapy get her down. Instead, she dressed up.
Some people come to chemotherapy with a pillow or a blanket, or some other comforting item. Jenna Rojas arrived with a baseball bat, football, piñata, teddy bears and hand-made signs or messages of encouragement on her shirt, such as “Tackling cancer, one treatment at a time” and “We can do it.”
With her family and friends joining in and even at times nurses, it was all part of her thematic, costumed approach to treatment as the 31-year-old took on Hodgkin lymphoma at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center.
There was the “tutus and touchdowns” football theme (and yes, they wore tutus.) Rojas and her minions donned sombreros and piñatas for Chemo de Mayo (instead of Cinco de Mayo); for ’50s day, they wore Elvis T-shirts and hugged teddy bears. A Rosie the Riveter outfit represented strength and superhero costumes celebrated the last treatment, signifying for Rojas that “chemo was tough, but I was tougher.”
She said dressing up has been a fun way to get her family and friends involved while helping to keep her mind off treatment. Like most, Rojas went through the stages of being upset, sad, worried and scared, but on her fifth of 12 chemotherapy sessions, she decided to take control and turn things around.
“If I had to sit there for a few hours to get this medicine, I decided I may as well make the most of it and it’s been nice bringing smiles to nurses and patients,” she said.
Before her diagnosis, Rojas spent months going to various doctors with symptoms of itching, feeling tired and fatigued and having spots on her arms. Various antibiotics and lotions did nothing to clear up those symptoms.
A lymph node in her neck was swollen for months. She was referred to Scott Scharer, MD, otolaryngologist at Baptist ENT Specialists. A needle biopsy followed, and then another procedure to remove the lymph node, which came back positive for Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that is in part of the immune system called the lymphatic system.
A PET scan showed the cancer had spread to lymph nodes in her neck, chest and back. She started treatment at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, postponing plans to return to college to fulfill a dream of being a teacher.
Ed Gorak, DO, hematologist/oncologist with Baptist MD Anderson and physician-in-chief, said Hodgkin’s typically affects people in their 20s and 30s.
“Sometimes people are sick for several months before making a diagnosis and often times it’s thought to be something else because of the slow growth of the cancer,” Dr. Gorak said. “But Hodgkin’s is very treatable. Remission rates can be as high as 70 to 80 percent in some patients. It is one of the more curable cancers.”
Rojas’s prognosis is good, Dr. Gorak said. Midway through her chemotherapy treatments, a PET scan showed marked improvement, with the cancer having shrunk significantly. Rojas will have another scan in late summer.
Her spirit and costume themed-treatments also helped.
“I think it’s great and unique. It has helped her cope and she has a great support system. It’s helping her get through her therapy,” Dr. Gorak said.
Rojas added, “I’m generally a happy go-lucky person. But I had to tough it out. I’ve tried to remain positive and just jump through the hoops and do what I need to do and move on from there.”
Stepping back and accepting help from others has not been easy, she said, but she’s grateful for her large support system of friends and family, including her mom, step-father, dad, brother and two sisters.
“She just has so much strength,” said her mom, Edye Wagner. “She’s always been strong-willed and the person who is always there for everybody else. She feels she always has to be strong for everybody. No matter what is going on she’ll put on that brave face.”
Rojas’s mom and step-father, Bryan Wagner, who have provided support throughout her treatment, dressed up for the last treatment as Mr. & Mrs. Incredible, which Rojas said was perfectly fitting for their role in her journey of providing encouragement and support.
Her dad, John Rojas, also came from North Carolina dressed in a New York Yankees baseball jersey for her second to last treatment. Rojas and a high school friend, who dressed in Tampa Bay Rays gear, brought a bat and made a sign that read, “Chemo #11, AKA “The Home Stretch.”
“She won’t let anything get her down. She keeps going,” John Rojas said. “Dressing up helps take her mind off of it and gives her an incentive not to feel bad.”
The infusion nurses at Baptist MD Anderson and at her oncologist’s office also enjoyed seeing what theme was next. The infusion team even decorated her area on her last day of treatment and greeted her with superhero signs and masks.
“I always enjoyed seeing what the theme was going to be. She goes above and beyond,” said Nicole Bautista, medical assistant. “She always has a smile. If she doesn’t, I know something is wrong.”
One of her infusion nurses, Frankie Smith, RN, happened to have a tutu in her car left over from Halloween when Rojas and her friends dressed in the “tutus and touchdowns” theme. Rojas convinced her to put it on for her photos.
“She’s awesome. We love her,” Smith said.
Rojas, who looks forward to returning to college, said she’s glad she’s been able to bring joy to others at the cancer center.
“I enjoy bringing a smile to everyone else’s faces,” she said. “My advice to others is stay strong and make the most of it.”
“And, know your body. If you notice something abnormal, be persistent and keep on. I’m glad I stayed with it and got into the right hands to get treatment so I could get better.”
For more information on Baptist MD Anderson, go to baptistmdanderson.com.