People learn the value of their bonds with family and friends in a variety of ways. In Lanell Christensen’s case, a succession of health issues, including two bouts with cancer, served to convince her that the people in her life were indispensable.
At every step in her journey, people stepped up to show her just how rich she was in the ways that really count.
At the beginning of 1984, she was a cheerleader at Columbus North High School without concerns beyond those of a normal teenager. Then one day, she noticed a small lump at the base of her throat and notified her mother. They consulted a doctor who ordered thyroid tests. He told her she was fine, but she wasn’t convinced. By the time of the third test, the lump was the size of a grapefruit. Still, the doctor was disinclined to look into it further.
Lanell and her mother decided to pursue another avenue. Lanell’s best friend’s father was an ear, nose and throat specialist who sent her to his former medical-school professor at the IU Medical Center. He diagnosed her with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and scheduled surgery.
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“He took as much of the lump out as he could, but it had intertwined with the bones of my chest and was pushing on my esophagus,” Christensen said.
The next phase of treatment was mantle radiation, which covered all the main upper-body lymph nodes. “They don’t do that anymore because it affects the major organs between your head and chest,” she said.
The radiation treatments overlapped with chemotherapy for a while, but in December 1984 her team had to stop the radiation. Christensen’s white blood cell count had dropped to zero.
“My body was so drug-sensitive,” she said. “They’d change my regimen and it would knock me flat again.”
She spent much of 1985 in the hospital. Blood clots, collapsed lungs and infections complicated her basic battle with the cancer.
“I did make friends there,” she said. “We got close to one family in particular. The boy who was the cancer patient died in 1986, but the rest of us stayed in touch. They were actually at the hospital in 2014 when I had my mastectomy.”
Her team removed her spleen to see how far the cancer had spread. She was Stage 4-A.
They wanted to schedule surgery right away. We said, ‘Whoa, let’s back up a bit.’ I called a friend of mine and said, ‘I have this friend who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.’ My friend said she’d call me when she got home and when she did, she said, ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’
“The doctors told my mom on three separate occasions that I wasn’t going to make it through the night,” she says.
She surmounted her challenges and progressed. By early 1986, she was considered “not cured, but clean.”
Life assumed a sort of normalcy. Christensen worked part time and cultivated a social life.
She met her future husband John Christensen — of whom she wasn’t aware even though they were fellow North graduates — as a result of friends arranging a “chance encounter” at a bar in Seymour.
“I fell for his truck before I fell for him,” Lanell Christensen said.
“It was a 1972 Ford I’d restored and customized,” John Christensen recalled.
By August 1993, when they married, she was considered cured. She studied human resources at IUPUC and Ivy Tech, and they built a life together. She dealt with some health issues through the years, such as bouts of vertigo caused by acoustic neuroma in her right ear, and a cyst on her eye. Still, her emphasis was on the activities and relationships that made her days fulfilling.
Then, in 2014, she noticed a discolored area on her chest. “At first, I thought it was a bruise from cleaning the tops of cabinets,” she said.
John convinced her to have it checked out.
A nurse practitioner scheduled her for a mammogram, and the results seemed suspicions.
She underwent fine-needle biopsies at the Columbus Regional Hospital Breast Health Center, which resulted in the diagnosis of breast cancer.
“Our heads were spinning,” Lanell said of the way she and John reacted. “They wanted to schedule surgery right away. We said, ‘Whoa, let’s back up a bit.’ I called a friend of mine and said, ‘I have this friend who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.’ My friend said she’d call me when she got home and when she did, she said, ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’”
The friend sent Christensen to a surgical oncologist at Community Hospital South in Indianapolis. Christensen described her as “brilliant, yet easy to talk to.” After biopsies and scans, the Community South team put together a treatment plan.
“Once we knew the plan, we decided to get the family together and let everybody know,” John said.
“It was especially hard for my mom, because of what she went through when I was 18,” Lanell added.
Coaching cheerleaders at East High School had been a big part of her life for several years, and the next group she had to notify was the girls in that program.
“I’d known all of them since the fifth grade,” Lanell said. “A lot of my ‘mommy energy’ went into my girls. I assembled them and said, ‘You can have tonight to be upset. Tomorrow morning there will be no more crying.’ I also told them not to put it on social media.”
They expressed the desire to do something to offset Christensen’s expenses. “I told them, ‘You can do T-shirts, but let’s raise money for something bigger than my situation.’” They raised $1,000 for the mammography assistance program at Columbus Regional Hospital.
Her chemotherapy treatment yielded some challenging side effects. She experienced severe nausea, a low platelet count and heart damage.
She was finally in stable enough condition for her mastectomy, which took place Oct. 24, 2014.
Various groups of friends organized meal trains. An old friend who was a hair stylist gathered those close to her for a head-shaving party after hours at the stylist’s salon.
John’s mother came in from Denver and stayed six weeks.
“My family is very demonstrative,” Christensen said. “There’s lots of kissing and hugging. We absorb people. I told John’s mother that I really did get another mother.”
There are ongoing complications, particularly lymphedema, which makes her left arm swell. She wears a compression sleeve to lessen its impact.
Still, she says that the faith she and John put at the center of their lives makes her life on balance a joyful one: “We’re both Christians; I know that my greatest physician is (God).”
TYPES OF CANCER: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, June 1984; breast cancer, diagnosed July 2014.
OCCUPATION: Facilities maintenance department at Circle K
FAMILY: Husband, John.
ADVICE: “Don’t panic. That’s the enemy’s way of getting in. Your attitude is three-fourths of the battle.”