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Braving life’s battles together

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Mother, daughter help each other through cancer

By Amber Coulter

Debbie Rosenkrantz had a 15 percent chance of surviving rhabdomyosarcoma in 1969 unless she got help from specialists in New York City.

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Swelling around her eyelid turned out to be a type of cancer so rare that only a handful of doctors specialized in its treatment. Debbie was the 25th patient treated during the five years that the experimental treatment had been available.

But if she had that treatment, she had an 85 percent chance of survival.

Almost immediately, Debbie and her mother, Emma, were on a plane bound for New York.

“As far as we were concerned, we didn’t have a choice,” she said.

Her family in Miami, Fla., accepted a donation from the Fraternal Order of Police to get there and a charitable boarding house that housed them for $1 each day.

Debbie’s father stayed home to work and take care of her siblings.

Emma comforted the young girl, who had to be anesthetized during a bone scan to keep her from wriggling and was given massive doses of radiation over a six-week period.

“It’s devastating when they tell you how real it is, the percentage of survival,” she said.

After they flew home, Debbie had to get blood tests and fly with her mother back to New York when sinus problems made it look like the cancer might have returned.

The family was told that Debbie would have a chance of surviving if she could make it through 13 months. It was several more years before doctors said the cancer likely was gone for good.

Radiation damage meant she had to wait until she was about 10 years old to have plastic surgery on her eyelids and receive an artificial eye.

When Debbie started school, Emma gave her daughter another kind of support.

She knew Debbie had trouble with depth perception that kept her from performing well in gym class, but she told any teacher who tried to take it easy on Debbie academically that she didn’t need special treatment.

Some students called Debbie white eyes because a cataract formed in the eye that later was removed. Other students asked school administrators to make Debbie sit somewhere else during lunch so they wouldn’t have to look at her while they were eating.

Those who took students’ comments the hardest were Debbie’s siblings. They almost got into fights sometimes, Emma said.

“I was proud of her,” she said. “I tried to encourage her.”

Debbie said her mother’s support meant a lot to her.

“I think she is one of the reasons that I didn’t let it bother me as much because she wouldn’t let me use it as a crutch or an excuse,” she said.

Now, Debbie is a teacher at Van Voorhis Elementary School at Fort Knox.

Debbie and Emma live together in Radcliff, and it’s Debbie who takes care of her mother.

Emma was diagnosed in 1988 with leukocytosis, now called chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

She waved it off, saying that doctors said she’d likely have 20 or 30 years before there were any adverse effects.

Emma also has had skin cancers removed and is checked regularly to make sure no more develops.

Other health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes, make her rely on Debbie.

Debbie helps with tasks that require mobility, especially because her mother has an injured leg.

Debbie places pain pills, water, the telephone and anything else she thinks her mother might need on a nearby table before going to work. She tucks her mother in to bed to make sure she’s taken care of then, too.

Debbie said her mother took care of her when she was young, and now she’s returning the care.

Emma said it’s good to have support from her family.

“People can’t believe there’s so much we do for one another,” Emma said.

They do everything they do because they love each other, she said.

Amber Coulter can be reached at (270) 505-1746 or acoulter@thenewsenterprise.com.