For a lot of families who have gone through a cancer diagnosis, big life milestones provide a time to take stock and think about the impact of cancer on their lives. For one Valley, Massachusetts family, high school graduation is a time to reflect on how far Beyonce Howell, 18, has come since her childhood cancer diagnosis.
Nine months after Tracy Brooks first had her daughter Beyonce Howell, on Tracy’s birthday, September 12, 2001, baby Beyonce was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma, according to The Valley Times-News.READ MORE
Brooks’ sister Eria posted a photo of Tracy in her blue cap and gown, carrying a sign that says “stage 4 cancer survivor,” with the caption, “Whew lawd!!! This just did it for me.. my sis did it!!! Congratulations Beyonce!!!”
The post has gone viral, with 4,700 shares as of the writing of this article, making Howell an inspiration to a lot of fans. After one fan wrote to her about her about radiation treatment and about her cancer relapse when she thought she was in remission, Howell wrote back with some advice from her own journey.
“I told her that you have to speak it into existence,” Howell said. “You have to think that you’re going into full remission. Don’t let that stop you, you can’t let that stop you. Live your life to the fullest, live every day like it’s your last. That’s all you can do. You can put it all in God’s hands because there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Neuroblastoma accounts for about seven to 10 percent of all pediatric cancers, and as much as 50 percent of cancer in infants younger than one, in the United States with about 800 new cases identified each year.
Neuroblastoma develops from nerve cells in the fetus, and often affects the small glands above the kidneys called adrenal glands, but can be found in other locations in the chest, neck or spine. Some forms of this cancer will spontaneously disappear on their own, but for most children, treatment such as surgery and chemotherapy and/or radiation is required.
Beyonce says that she wasn’t expected to live. “They told my mom 24 hours, but I lived up to five years, and then I grew up,” Howell said.
As a cancer survivor, Howells said that in the past she didn’t like to talk about it. “I didn’t like talking about it,” Howell said. “I kind of pushed it off. I didn’t want people to ask me. People who are best friends with my mom would be like ‘oh, this is the baby that had cancer,’ and I’d just be quiet.”
And she also said she felt some shame around the topic of her illness, until it was all in the open. “I was embarrassed. I just didn’t like people bringing it up, but now that it’s out, I can talk freely about it. I can say ‘yes, I had cancer when I was a child. Yes, I survived it.’”
Brooks, Howell’s mom, said that she was caught completely off guard by the diagnosis. “You hear about cancer, but you never think that this baby, as small as she was, has cancer,” Brooks said. “You see it on television, but me personally, I never would’ve thought it.”
On September 9th, 2001, Howell was rushed to the hospital with a high fever. There, doctors ran x-ray tests, and detected a mass in her stomach. That’s when doctors said she needed to see a pediatrician.
But the pediatrician quickly sent the nine-month-old back to the hospital for blood tests, and suggested they go to St. Jude’s in Memphis, Tennessee. When Brooks said she wasn’t going to be able to make the 5 and a half hour trip because her mom was also sick, she and her pediatrician realized it would be best for her to go to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. More than 20 doctors were await her arrival, according to Brooks.
Doctors at the hospital ran a lot of tests and determined that Howell was at risk of a stroke. Materials from the tests couldn’t get to Massachusetts because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
For Brooks, the hospital was an overwhelming experience. “Once the doctors took her upstairs, put her in a room and started hooking her up to all types of different machines, they just asked me to stand back,” Brooks said. According to the Times News, she threw her arms up and gave a confused gaze.”I’m just standing there looking like ‘what am I supposed to do? What can I do?'”
On September 12th, doctors informed the close family that Howell had neuroblastoma, and because of problems with her blood pressure, would only live one day. The cancer had attacked to her liver and kidneys, and radiation was the only treatment option.
And all she could do was hope for the best.”I was really feeling like a lost person,” Brooks said. “Sitting there, looking at the television, with everything going on, waiting and hoping to hear that ‘even though we cut her, we went ahead and took it [stomach mass] out.'”
Eventually, she was informed that that wasn’t the case. “That wasn’t the answer that I got,” said Brooks.
Howell did three day chemotherapy sessions for 48 weeks in Birmingham, continuing treatment until she was five years old. In 2006, The Valley Times-News ran a story about her recovery.
“[As time went on], we got more out of the woods of it to the point where she could move more and get involved with stuff more,” Brooks said. “It kind of faded out on me a little bit to where I felt like I didn’t have to worry about it too much anymore. I’m saying in my head that she’s actually healed from everything.”
Over time, Howell began to live a normal life, with cancer in her past. In seventh grade, she began telling friends about her cancer journey when the topic came up in science class. Since then, they’ve joked that they never remember she actually had cancer.
Howell’s grandfather was also diagnosed with cancer, and died while Howell was in high school.
Howell’s experience has inspired her to never give up, even during the most difficult moments of her professional journey. “[Her cancer journey] gave me motivation because I did want to become a nurse practitioner for regular people, but now I want to be one in Children’s Hospital with kids that have sicknesses like what I had. That’s my motivation to keep going.”