She was a cancer nurse until she became a cancer patient

‘Cancer doesn’t play favorites. It can get anyone.’

Vanessa Klassen spends time with her children Heidi (1.5 years old), Genevieve (6) and Henrik (4) at her home in Denton, Tex. (Desiree Espada for The Lily)

When a routine physical exam this March revealed Vanessa Klassen had Hodgkin lymphoma, the news shocked her.

“I knew it was bad from the beginning,” she says. A doctor noticed the thyroid in her neck felt lumpy and sent her to get an ultrasound. Klassen’s lymph nodes were swollen.

“I just knew it. I’m a registered nurse, and I worked for the cancer hospital for six years, so I was familiar with this.”

It was stage 2. She was 31 at the time. She had three young children, and her youngest hadn’t even turned one yet. After moving with her high school sweetheart and husband of 10 years, Bryan, from Canada to Denton, Tex., a suburb 45 minutes north of Dallas, Klassen was still getting settled. She was just getting used to all the change.

And now there was cancer.

“I’m supposed to be on the other side of the bed here. I’m supposed to be the one giving the drugs. I care for people. I give the treatment,” says Klassen.

After years of being a nurse at Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, Alberta, Klassen found herself on the patient side. She’d spent years helping patients get rid of their cancer, and now cancer was a fist-sized mass lodged between her lungs.

Art time at the Klassen house.
[Left] The Klassen’s family dog, Poky. [Middle] Cards and well-wishes from family and friends. “It was a constant reminder of the army of support behind me,” she says. [Right] The Klassen kids sit down to paint. (Desiree Espada for The Lily)

Klassen and her son, Henrik.

Cancer with kids

Being far from her family in Canada made chemotherapy harder, but her family was an anchor and lifeline. Her mom, sister, sister-in-law and mother-in-law took turns flying down each time she went through treatment to help with the kids. It meant a lot.

The Klassen kids (now ages 6, 4 and 1) handled the news well. They asked if her cancer was contagious, if they’d lose their hair, too, and if she’d be okay.

“They understood that my body started randomly making too many cells, and we had to get rid of the cells because they were going to make me sicker.”

That’s why she had to get chemo.

Klassen spends her time at home, recovering and spending time with her three kids. (Desiree Espada for The Lily)

Cancer with no hair

“When my hair started all falling out, you think you’re going to be fine with it, but it just takes all sense of self when you don’t have hair. I know that seems silly. You shouldn’t have that much stock in hair, but you still do. You’re a woman,” says Klassen.

During chemo, Klassen shaved her head and wore a wig made out of her own hair, following the advice of her longtime friend, Alissa Sanders. Sanders had been battling breast cancer since 2011. The two had met as babies in the same church nursery.

“She was the first person I called when I first realized I may have cancer. We cried and prayed and she encouraged me through each step of the cancer journey,” says Klassen.

Cancer guilt

In August, Klassen’s dear friend passed away.

“There’s always guilt associated, too. I’m fine now. I’m going to have a good prognosis. But a month ago, I lost one of my best friends to breast cancer. Why am I here and she’s not?” Klassen says. “There’s a lot of guilt — this cancer guilt they talk about. I worked with cancer patients for years and I would’ve had no real idea about how you could feel so happy to be done and so guilty, and just have a mix of emotions about the whole thing. I don’t think you can really prepare for that.”
Klassen’s youngest wasn’t even a year old when she got diagnosed. “Any of the symptoms for lymphoma could easily be masked by having a baby,” she says. She experienced fatigue, weight loss and night sweats, but attributed those to breastfeeding and exercising more.

Klassen and her husband, Bryan, are high school sweethearts. They relocated to Denton, Tex. because of his job in the oil and gas industry.
The Klassen family enjoys a day at the park. (Desiree Espada for The Lily)

Cancer awareness

On Sept. 11, Klassen completed her 12th and final round of chemo. Her hair will be able to grow back. She’s excited and eager to be cancer-free.

“I just want people to know that they need to go get a physical every year … I really think that even if people think they’re fine they need to get a physical. Get a baseline for where you’re healthy at, so that if there is something off, it’ll trigger [the doctors] to have something to look into.”
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