By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
SHELBINA, Mo. -- Jennifer Mason remembered Susan Sarandon in the movie "Stepmom." Once diagnosed with cancer, Sarandon's vibrant character turned ghostly pale and sickly ill.
That image taunted Mason as she withdrew from classes at Western Illinois University. As an ambitious hotel and restaurant management student, Mason hadn't planned for stage 3-C ovarian cancer to infiltrate her body and interrupt her college education. She'd seen cancer in the movie, but she'd never seen it in her plan for life.
"It was just very, very not what I planned," Mason said.
Since her diagnosis in July 2011, Mason has rearranged that plan.
One week, she's a spirited senior at WIU in Macomb. With an associate's degree in pastries from Kendall College in Chicago, Mason struggles to enjoy the hotel part of her bachelor's degree program in hotel and restaurant management. Like many college students, she worries about classes, and in some cases, getting to classes at all.
The next week, she's a determined ovarian cancer patient. The academic struggle becomes secondary to an emotional and physical challenge. At 23 years old, Mason already is fighting her second round of cancer. She withdrew from classes during her first treatments, but this time, she's elected to continue her studies.
Now, she's back to chemotherapy and back to the books. Cancer might be what her body does, but maintaining her studies and her health is what Mason is doing.
"You just wouldn't sit in the corner and let cancer kill you," Mason said. "You'd fight to the death."
Finding a balance
WIU disability services helped Mason arrange a course load that she could balance while handling chemotherapy treatments. She spends one week physically in the classroom and then another week receiving treatments in St. Louis.
As the doctors inject the cancer-killing poison into her system, Mason funnels academia into her routine by attending lectures and submitting homework electronically. Dr. Andrea Hagemann, Mason's oncologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis, believes a positive attitude greatly impacts a patient's success.
Despite the scheduling difficulty, course load and side effects of chemotherapy, Mason refuses to allow cancer to deprive her of the life she wants to live.
"She's very determined not to miss out on things that other women her age are capable of doing," Hagemann said. "She's extremely and appropriately optimistic."
Hagemann has treated Mason since her initial doctor left the practice earlier this year. While Mason has added pizzazz to her illness, youth isn't often associated with low-grade serous ovarian cancer. The cancer typically forms in women nearly twice Mason's age. So while Mason rocks teal hair for Ovarian Cancer Awareness month and takes treatments in bunny slippers, her comrades in the illness don't often emulate her youthfulness.
"It's really kind of isolating," she said. "Most of my friends that have ovarian cancer are in their 50s, 60s and 70s."
Many have husbands and children to push them through the difficult treatments. Mason will never have biological children of her own. While her doctor preserved her uterus, her ovaries were removed. She might eventually carry a child, but she'll need an egg donor to do so.
Faith and prayers
It hasn't been easy to watch their youngest child fight the disease, but Larry and Laura Mason have provided their daughter with a plethora of emotional support. When studies allow, daughter and mother enjoy life despite the fight for it. During trips for treatments, they'll occasionally visit cathedrals, take in history and enjoy ethnic dining in St. Louis's Central West End. Both agree that adding fun to the fight makes the fight that much more achievable.
"She's had to give some more serious thought to (life), and it's uncertain," Laura Mason said. "That's very difficult for a young adult that often feels invincible."
The family relies on faith in God and the religious community, too. As chemotherapy treatments progress, so do the number of prayers Mason receives. She has landed on prayer lists nationwide.
"I have people all over the country praying for me, and it's just crazy to think that," Mason said. "It's just really humbling to think that people are willing to shoot a little extra prayer for Jennifer."
Even though Mason spends most of her time in school or at treatments, the Shelby County community still offers its support to her and her family. Laura Mason said many local people have faced cancer, so the family has received an exceptional amount of support and encouragement.
"She's the cancer kid," Laura Mason said. "Everyone in the community knows about her, because they care."
Local organizations have written checks to help with costs such as travel expenses. Mason also often receives cards and letters of support from friends and acquaintances scattered throughout Shelby County.
Listen to your body
Even with cancer raging inside of her, Mason has started another fight on her own. Hagemann said Mason is the ultimate advocate for both herself as a patient and for cancer awareness. There is no test for ovarian cancer, and the elusive symptoms are common among people without cancer.
"It's more about being aware of your body and knowing if something doesn't seem right," Mason said.
Hagemann explained that symptoms include abdominal bloating, decreased appetite, increased frequency of urination and pelvic pain. While most women experience these symptoms, it's important to speak with a doctor if problems increase or remain consistent.
"The thing about women is, we're busy, and we're trying to do other things for people all the time," Hagemann said. "Oftentimes, we really don't take the time to listen to our bodies."
While Mason's prognosis and her attitude is positive, her battle with cancer will continue. The ovarian cancer cells grow slowly, so they don't respond well to chemotherapy. Generally, low-grade cancer patients tend to live longer, and Mason intends to graduate from WIU in May and pursue internship opportunities in St. Louis.
"We have to get creative, and we certainly don't want to give up because she's going to be around for a very long time," Hagemann said.