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Cancer survivor: A Valentine's Day to forget

By Trisha Henry
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Editor's Note: Trisha Henry, 30, is a producer for CNN's "The Situation Room" in Atlanta and a 10-year volunteer at Camp Sunshine, a camp for kids with cancer. She recalls her time as a college athlete battling cancer.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Every Valentine's Day, I begin to sweat, my heart races and my palms turn cold as I think about the horrible, shocking moment when I was told I had cancer.

In February 1996, I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois on a swimming scholarship and swimming was my life.

We were one week away from the Big Ten Championships when I woke up at 3 a.m. with severe stomach pains. My roommate took me to the emergency room. Three days later, I had emergency surgery at Christie Clinic Hospital for what the doctors thought were kidney stones.

The next morning -- Valentine's Day -- Dr. Newman at Christie Clinic in Champaign, Illinois, told me I had cancer.

He said that I had embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma -- rhabdo for short -- a fast growing, highly malignant tumor usually found in young children in their head, neck, hands or feet. Mine was the first reported case of rhabdo arising from the ureter, the tube connecting the kidney and bladder. Because it's so aggressive, it was important to catch it the first time; the survival rate changed dramatically if it returned. Our goal was to reach the five-year mark.

I went home to Georgia and started chemotherapy. From day one, I was determined not to be defeated, even with the tumor still inside and the pain immense. I also had an overwhelming support group, so I didn't have much time to think about my illness. (Read what Lance Armstrong says about Congress cutting funding for cancer research)

I continued to swim, as much as I could, and started dating Andrew Gaffney -- an old swimming friend who was at Georgia Tech. After a couple rounds of chemo my hair began to fall out and Andrew kindly shaved my head.

My initial treatments didn't appear to be working, so the doctors decided on surgery. On May 3, 1996, I had my right kidney, ureter, and a portion of my bladder removed. (Watch cancer survivors describe their fight Video)

I was nervous about the surgery, but even more concerned about my swimming career. I didn't want the doctors to cut through my stomach muscles. Every second counts in swimming and the abs are crucial for making good starts and quick flip turns. I wanted to give myself every opportunity to get back in the pool at my full potential. So to honor my ambitions, they made a vertical cut.

Waking up after surgery was the biggest shock of my life. I had never experienced pain that intense. I asked the doctors when I could get back in the pool. They said a month. It never occurred to me they meant just dipping my toes in the water.

The first time I dove into the pool again it hurt so bad I thought I had split myself in two.

After surgery, the doctors said I had between a stage three and four cancer -- stages that no cancer victim wants to hear about. We changed to a children's hospital for more specialized treatment. I alternated 3-5 days of chemotherapy followed by about three weeks of recovery.

Including my first rounds of treatment, I received chemo from the end of February 1996 through April 1997

Olympic medal provides hope

That summer, the Olympics were in Atlanta and I volunteered with the pool staff. But three days before the Games, I got really sick. I was told only a miracle would get me back in the pool. I told doctors to give me as many blood and platelet transfusions as they wanted, but I insisted I'd leave the hospital. Miraculously, my counts rose by the next morning.

My friend Angel Martino won the first U.S. medal of the 1996 Olympic Games in the 100-meter freestyle, the same event I swam. After the ceremony, she gave her bronze medal to me.

I was so stunned and overwhelmed with gratitude I was speechless. She told me I helped her realize what was important in life and that helped her focus on the Olympic experience.

Soon afterward, I started 23 radiation treatments at the same time as chemotherapy. I don't remember much about those two dozen days in the hospital, but I've been told I was on very strong pain medications. I was an emotional wreck; bawling, yet with a smile on my face. I even threw chairs in my hospital room.

The combination of chemo and radiation made me really sick. I couldn't digest solid food so my parents fed me intravenously. When I finally was released from the hospital, I was determined to eat solid food again. (Send your cancer story)

Being a winner again

In January 1997, I finally returned to school in Illinois. I went to class during the week and had chemo on weekends. On the day of my first exam, I woke up early to study. Instead I spent the morning throwing up. I barely made it to the exam, but I'm proud to say I got an A.

My last round of chemo was in April 1997. As soon as I finished my treatment, I started what would be a yearlong fight with the NCAA to get my eligibility back. But that wasn't the only barrier in front of me and swimming. I discovered how much my treatment had taken a toll on my body, especially my back. My training was limited, but I was still very determined to compete.

My last race was at a meet in Champaign, Illinois, in January 1999. I was the anchor for our 400 freestyle relay. It was the hardest race of my life, but we won, and I got a standing ovation when I finished.

It was nice to be a winner again.

Today, I am a 10-year cancer survivor. I still swim for fun and exercise at the gym, but my competing days are behind me.

This spring my mom will run her 10th marathon with Team in Training, an organization that supports cancer research. I'm her honoree. My sister is in graduate school studying epidemiology and participates in cancer research.

It's amazing how having cancer affected my life and the lives of my loved ones in ways I couldn't even have imagined at the time. The entire experience made me have an appreciation for life that I never knew before.

Trisha Henry, left, with Angel Martino after the swimmer gave her a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics.

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