To break the news to her two young sons that she had a case of advanced uterine cancer, Tennille Grossman explained it in a way that they not only understood, but that they loved: with superheroes.
The cancer cells were "bad guy germs" that had invaded her body, and a doctor was going to go in and take as many of them out as she could. But, as bad guys are wont to do, a few of them managed to hide and could multiply.
That's where her detailing of chemotherapy and, when that didn't work, a hormone treatment came in to help her boys Evan and Detrick, ages 2 and 7 at the time, to understand.
"I told them they were giving me a superhero medicine that would take out the bad guys that were hiding," Grossman said. "I knew that it worked. I just wanted to make sure we kept everything as normal as possible."
More than two years after her diagnosis and nine months after treatment ended, the superhero medicine has won out, and Grossman is cancer-free, and she hopes to help create a children's book to help explain cancer to kids.
But that was anything from a certainty when she started out — she had what Billings Clinic gynecological oncologist Dr. Erin Stevens described as a "very advanced" form of stage IV cancer — and it forced Grossman and her husband, Jack Grossman, to find a way to juggle treatment, her health, a full time job and finding a way to keep things as stable as possible for their sons.
"I didn't want them to be afraid," she said. "I was scared, and I didn't want them to be scared of it."
More than a ride
Had it not been for a Minnesota amusement park ride, Grossman might not have found the cancer in time.
Her father passed away in 2013, and she'd been dealing with his estate for months when the Grossmans traveled as a family to Minnesota in mid-2014 to bury him.
While there, the family was spending a day at the Valleyfair amusement park in the town of Shakopee when she noticed something was off.
"We were on a race car ride, and every time we'd go around a curve, it'd hit this spot on my side, and it hurt," Grossman said. "When I got off, I felt like death."
She tried to rest for the remainder of the trip, chalking it up to the stress of burying her father combined with a poor diet on the trip. When she visited a same-day clinic upon returning to Billings, she was told she was anemic and was referred to internal medicine.
Grossman followed up at a primary care provider with a CT scan, who called and told her she needed to see a gynecological oncologist. She couldn't get in until the following week.
"That was a really long, long weekend," she said.
From there, she met with Stevens — one of four full-time physicians in Billings Clinic's gynecological oncology department, which serves patients from five states in the Northern Rockies — and learned that she had stage IV uterine cancer.
Stevens said it appeared the cancer had been growing for a while. Cases like to Grossman's typically see a 10 to 20 percent five-year survival rate, she said.
While it's the most common form of gynecological cancer with about 60,000 cases reported annually, it's rare to see in somebody Grossman's age. She was 37 at the time of diagnosis, and most of the gynecological cancer patients Stevens sees are 55 and older.
"What's important is to not forget that this can happen in a young person, too," she said. "Check on these things, because sometimes it can be something."
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Soon after — and after explaining it to Detrick and Evan — Grossman underwent surgery to remove as much of the cancerous tissue as possible. She then began an 18-week chemotherapy treatment.
Grossman said that her upbringing, including being active in sports, spurred her to take Stevens' orders seriously, meaning she did everything she was told in the process.
"I come from a team-oriented family ... " she said. "She's the coach. She said, 'You're doing surgery, you're doing chemo, this is what's going to happen.' I said, 'Okay, coach. I'm in.'"
Through all of the chemo, Grossman continued to work her full-time job as operations director for Young Families Early Head Start. She also committed to spending as much regular family with her sons and husband as possible.
That meant that, even with weekly chemo sessions and work, she focused on staying as healthy as she could to keep her energy levels up enough to play with Evan and Detrick.
"When I let the fatigue happen, that's when I was really down," she said.
In December 2014, once the chemo ended, a follow-up visit with Stevens revealed that the not only was the cancer still there, but that it had spread to her liver and spleen.
"I could visibly see there was still cancer there," Stevens said. "It had grown despite the chemo."
It also meant the chances of survival were lower than first thought, and Stevens put Grossman on a hormone treatment that involves "making the cells do what we want them to do" in order to kill the cancer cells.
Nearly a year later, in November 2015, the treatment appeared to work. When Stevens operated on Grossman a second time to remove a mass of cells and her spleen, the cancer was all dead. Now Grossman appears cancer free.
"Dr. Stevens and that amusement park ride saved my life," she said. "And when I went in (to Billings Clinic), I felt so supported by the staff thereby my family and my friends and my work."
Grossman said that dealing with cancer while she and her husband kept things steady for Detrick and Evan, now 9 and 4 years old and willing and able to calmly and confidently talk about what their mother went through, has changed her.
It brought her to the realization that there aren't enough resources out there for kids whose parents have cancer.
With that in mind, she'd like to help write a children's book that can explain it in a way that connects with kids. Grossman has been in contact with a number of people who have written their own books or are familiar with the process and hopes to help create something that can help children like her own.
"There's just not enough kids' information out there," she said. "I would love to do that."
In her own life, she's more patient and understanding. She learned to delegate and focus on herself when she needed it. She and her husband have a better relationship and understanding of how the other thinks and what they provide for the family.
"I've learned a lot about myself," she said. "It made us stronger. You may only have so much time, and you appreciate it more."