For seven years, Karen Jabczenski, an oncology nurse and mother of two, has cared for pediatric cancer patients at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak. Many of them she cares for daily from the moment they’re diagnosed.
“You see a lot of these patients day-in and day-out, so they become like family,” Jabczenski said. “You love them like they’re your own.”
Witnessing the struggles her patients and their families are forced to endure, Jabczenski thought she had a good idea of what they go through each day.
But she said it wasn’t until May 2019 that she finally had a true understanding. It was at that time her then-9-year-old daughter, Ava, was having intense migraines, which led to the discovery of a cancerous brain tumor nearly the size of a tennis ball.
Doctors surgically removed Ava’s atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (ATRT), and she began her treatment in the same pediatric oncology and hematology department in which her mother works.
“Never in a million years would I think it was going to be me,” she said. “I take care of these kids. Now, it’s my daughter who needs to be taken care of.”
Rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, three craniotomies, multiple trial drugs and three relapses later - 12-year-old Ava has done it all, and she’s still putting up a fight.
“I thought I had a really good understanding of what these parents were going through, but I really didn’t know,” Jabczenski said. “You really don’t know until you experience it yourself.”
In the beginning, Jabczenski said the nurse in her urged her to look at Ava’s scans right away. Now, things are different.
Ava said her mom is like her very own superwoman - always there to care for her and make her laugh, especially during the toughest of times.
“When I’m scared before a procedure, she makes me laugh by telling me funny stories,” Ava said. “She means a lot to me, and I think she’s a funny mom.”
Jabczenski said the hardest part of all is grieving the loss of your “normal child” because their normal has now changed. Prior to getting sick, she said her giggly, happy-go-lucky, little Ava was quite the athlete.
“The day before she got sick, before her headaches started, she scored the winning goal of her soccer game,” Jabczenski said. “If you see her now, you’d never know she had three craniotomies. She never complains. She’s a fighter for sure.”
One thing Jabczenski said she gained from this entire experience is the ability to reach her patients’ parents on a whole new level. Now, not only can she share her medical point-of-view and knowledge with families, but she can also relate to them on a personal level, simply as another mother whose daughter is battling cancer.
“I feel like it helps me, and it helps them,” she said. “Because I feel like I can really meet them on that level, knowing what they’re going through.”
Her advice for families dealing with the unthinkable: “Take it day by day, and no matter how hard it is, you’re going to get through it. You have to rely on the people around you.”