Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community

Navigating through cancer

 

   

Nathalie Criou, 34, came to Stanford Hospital & Clinics in January 2007 and underwent aggressive treatment for sarcoma over the next 11 months. She is still undergoing tests and follow-up scans, but is back at home in San Francisco, combining two of her passions: sailing and fundraising for sarcoma research.

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”—the dreaded call sounded so unreal, but the rising water level was no dream. In 2006, I was the only woman on a crew delivering a sailboat from Hawaii to San Francisco when we were sunk by an 80-ton descendant of Moby Dick. We had 30 minutes before the 40-foot yacht hit the bottom of the ocean.

We radioed for help, to no avail. We grabbed our emergency kit, food and water, and transferred onto the life raft. Stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, drifting helplessly through shark-infested waters, at the mercy of currents, we floated for a day before the Coast Guard managed to locate us with a plane.

 

   

I thought that I’d had enough of a survival experience to last me 10 years.

A few months later, I was diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. It was found in the cervix, a very unusual location for this type of cancer, and to this day it remains “unclassified.” There was no defined protocol of care and no data to make treatment decisions. Because of the location of the cancer and its unknown character, I named it “Alien.”

The wreck prepared me mentally and emotionally for my cancer fight. I learned how to live through uncertainty, deal with fear and tame an inhospitable environment. It didn’t prepare me for the worst part of the diagnosis: I would never be able to fulfill my dream of becoming a mother because the treatment included a hysterectomy and removal of the ovaries. This issue was more fundamental to me than any degree, job or house.

I chose to come to Stanford for treatment, and my oncologist, Amreen Husain, MD, referred me to a fertility specialist who had experience with cancer patients. Lynn Westphal, MD, put me on a fast track, and I went through two in vitro fertilization cycles between surgeries to freeze ovarian tissue as well as embryos with an anonymous donor. These efforts gave me enough hope to go through treatment. With the help of Stanford and Transvideo, I made a video to help raise awareness of these options for other cancer patients: youtube.com/beatsarcoma.

Sarcoma affects primarily children and young adults. It is so poorly understood that most sarcoma patients feel like they are “one of a kind.” I am very confident that with enough funds, research can bring more options to these patients. That’s why, as I was undergoing treatment, I founded BeatSarcoma to help create awareness and build that knowledge. No one else should be stranded alone.

My experiences have given me an unconditional love for life, a resolve to survive any obstacle and a desire to help others. I am combining these traits in a race to raise funds for BeatSarcoma: I competed double-handed in the Pacific Cup 2008, a race from San Francisco to Hawaii, traversing the same route where I was stranded two years ago. BeatSarcoma had a very successful year and made a $20,000 gift to the Stanford Cancer Center to help strengthen its sarcoma research program.

My battle is not over, but I want Alien’s main legacy to be that scar at the bottom of my abdomen: It runs from side to side and looks like a big smile.

Learn more about Criou’s experiences and fundraising efforts at BeatSarcoma.org.

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