Tania Kibble did not think she could have children. But this year, she and her partner Brian received the best surprise of their lives: baby Cleo, a little girl with a big personality and the best smiles.
Tania and Brian were both thrilled to find out Tania was pregnant, and little Cleo arrived January 3, 2020 when Tania was in the midst of her second year of medical school at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The date is also coincidentally the same date as Tania’s childhood cancer diagnosis which occurred 20 years earlier, transforming the day into one with new meaning and purpose.
“Being a cancer survivor makes you aware that life is fragile,” said Tania. So, she says she loves her daughter hard. “I want her to know she can trust me with anything, because things can change with a blink of an eye,” she said.
Tania knows this firsthand.
While her family was on vacation in El Salvador, a then 4-year-old Tania was sitting in the ocean, the waves made her leg float unnaturally back and forth, as if her leg was not a part of her small body. After falling and hitting a piano bench and complaining of pains and aches before the vacation, her parents, Butch and Isabel, became increasingly concerned with their daughter’s health.
They cancelled the remainder of the trip and returned to the January cold of Montevideo, Minnesota. Her parents brought her to several doctors, and an x- ray of her leg revealed mass in her hip. They were finally sent to the University of Minnesota, where oncologists confirmed that the mass was cancerous, stage 4 Ewing sarcoma. Worse still, scans revealed that Tania’s lungs were also filled with the disease.
She remembers a lot of the treatment process, including vomiting, losing clumps of hair when brushing it, her nails falling out, and bleeding and pain from surgery, chemotherapy and low dose radiation.
Despite all of it, she said her dad helped her focus on the positives. “His positivity helped me be a better version of myself,” she said. “He also knew my medication regimen inside out, even to this day!”
Throughout the experience, Tania said she felt loved and reassured by her parents and felt that no matter what, things would be okay. Her parents made a point to explain procedures and effects of medications in ways she could understand. “Good or bad, they kept me in the know,” she said. “When it was applicable, they would even “bargain” with me using stuffed animals from the gift shop in turn for my consent.”
She said she felt like a member of the team. “My parents were amazing and a key piece in my recovery,” she said. “My mom dedicated her life. She was the strong fist and the soft shoulder."
Tania remembers everything tasted like fish due to chemotherapy. To her, the only good-tasting food was foot-long hot dogs. No matter what the hour, her mom would run to get them for her.
Tania is also extraordinarily grateful for her medical team. They saved her life despite the cancer metastasizing in her lungs, and she did not relapse. She survived.
Throughout her life, Tania thinks her experience with cancer taught her a few key lessons. “It forced me to be adaptable and flexible at a really young age,” she said. “Cancer also forces you to embrace your feelings and be aware of your needs and differences.”
Though she survived Ewing sarcoma, it left its mark. Because the cancer grew in her hip, her joint had to be cut out and her femur was fused to what was left of the capsule of the joint.
She cannot ride a bike or tie her right shoe without taking it off. When she needs to use the stairs, she has to consciously think about how to make it up. As a child and teenager, she could not participate in sports, though as she grew up she learned to push her limits and started running.
She also thought she was infertile due to treatment, so when baby Cleo came into the picture, cancer lost again. However, doctors had some health concerns along the way.
During pregnancy, Tania needed a high risk OB doctor and a maternal fetal medicine doctor because of lung and heart complications due to radiation. Her hip was a concern for a natural delivery, but her brother-in-law, a physical therapist, measured her range of motion and was given the go ahead.
Because of concerns associated in part with her cancer history, Tania’s doctors wanted to induce her early, between 35-37 weeks. But Cleo had other ideas and decided to come on her own a bit early, at exactly 37 weeks.
During labor, Tania had medication to speed the process and doctors recommended that she receive an epidural to keep her heart rate down. They were concerned that a number of factors, including her previous radiation treatment, could have put her at a higher risk for complications. “We had a cardiac care unit room on standby, but the labor went so smooth we didn't need it!” she said.
Her sister was "on guard" during the delivery process to make sure her hip was not moved further than it needed to be.
For children facing childhood cancer in the future, Tania hopes things are easier. “I want to see treatments become tremendously better so cancer won’t be such a scary thing,” she said.
She also wants to use her skills and unique perspective in the medical world. A second-year medical student, she’s interested in pediatric medicine, and so far, she really loves oncology.
In summer 2019, she went back to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, but this time for an internship to help her prepare for a career as a doctor. During her internship, she helped interview patients and also participated in morning rounds (though not by herself, yet). She will be starting rotations there this summer.
“Having been on the other side of things, it makes me more empathetic,” she said. “It’s okay to be confused, mad, sad...Life isn’t fair and it’s okay to feel that. Feelings toward cancer change, it isn’t linear. I hope to project an empathy toward patients that only someone who has faced chronic illness can.”
Tania said she has definitely thought about survivor’s guilt .
“There is really no way around the unsettling feeling. It’s another "why me?" for cancer survivors, but this time in a different light,” she said. “I have struggled at times with how to deal with it, but what it has come down to for me is realizing how lucky I am and how thankful I should be despite any side effects.” She said grappling with those feelings has also inspired her to work harder and more passionately toward her goal of helping patients and families forced into the world of medicine.
Tania thinks childhood cancer forced her to be her best self. “Cancer isn’t a good thing,” she said, “but cancer can have good outcomes.”
Today, Tania plans to finish up medical school with Cleo by her side.