Veterinary medicine student speaks out about pediatric cancer
By Erica A. Hernandez
Casey Siljestorm, 23, walked into Lecture Hall A of UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine on Feb. 15 like any other person.
Confidently, she crossed the room in her tan heels and assumed her position at the front of the classroom. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, Siljestorm was ready to do something she’s never done before: open up to all of her peers about her personal battle with pediatric cancer.
Siljestorm spoke not only as a student but also as a survivor ambassador for the National Children’s Cancer Society. Siljestorm assumed this position after she underwent 14 rounds of chemotherapy to beat a rare form of pediatric cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma.
“I was as healthy as you can be,” she said. “I had just turned 18, I was at junior prom and I noticed this bump on my back the size of a peanut.”
Her pediatrician told her it was simply a fatty lipoma. So Siljestorm went on with her life until the peanut had grown to a golf ball. That’s when she decided to have the lump removed.
Her surgeon found more than a fatty lipoma. After a biopsy, Siljestorm was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in the soft tissue of her back, a rare spot for a predominantly bone cancer.
“Two weeks after I was diagnosed I was in treatment,” Siljestorm said.
Siljestorm was treated with five chemotherapy drugs. Each one has left her coping with different side effects, even years after treatment. One of the drugs left her with peripheral neuropathy and a total loss of her reflexes.
Siljestorm spoke candidly on what it was like when the alopecia took effect and she lost all of her hair.
“It was really creepy,” she joked.
Siljestorm’s main focus was speaking out against overly aggressive pediatric cancer treatments because of the late effects.
She said pediatric cancer is treated with some of the most aggressive methods available because of the high mortality rate facing pediatric cancer patients and the belief that younger bodies can bounce back better.
“It’s killing you but it’s trying to kill your cancer first. You leave chemo half dead,” she said.
After she concluded her presentation one of her classmates asked: “How are you finding vet school?” to which she replied: “Standing up in anatomy lab all day is hard.”
May 26, 2013 will mark five years that Siljestorm has lived cancer-free, a huge feat in cancer remission.
“I’m so proud of her. She doesn’t usually speak about this stuff with classmates or even friends,” said Judy Altier, Siljestorm’s mother, at her daughter’s presentation.
Altier has more than one reason to be proud of her daughter.
“We took her to Sea World at age 4, and she decided then to become a vet,” Altier said.
Altier said there was a time when her daughter was being hospitalized so much, even after beating the cancer, that she considered giving up going to veterinary school.
“I see how happy she is now and I know she’s exactly where she’s meant to be,” Altier said.