Catrina Carlton was your average healthy seven-year-old. She participated in sports and enjoyed spending time with her friends and family. Everything in her life up to that point resembled a normal childhood — until six months of constant stomach pain left her family and doctors questioning everything. At first, many assumed she had a reoccurring injury from gymnastics, and that after a quick doctors appointment and rest, she’d be completely fine. She was so young that hardly anyone thought the issue could be anything severe, let alone life-threatening.
Upon her initial arrival to the emergency room, doctors assumed that her pain was apendicitis, but after an ultrasound, things took a turn for the worst.
They quickly discovered the culprit of the pain was a large tumor on top of her adrenal gland. After a biopsy, she was diagnosed with Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor (ATRT) and immediately began outpatient treatment to fight the cancer.
Carlton spent third grade going through chemotherapy and 14 rounds of radiation to her abdomen. She rarely attended school, only when she was feeling well enough, and her treatment quickly took a toll on her family, especially her older sister who was in sixth grade at the time.
Looking back on her treatment though, Carlton recalls not really knowing what was going on or the severity of her condition.
“I had an epiphany one day, because my parents and doctors always had conversations outside of the room. I remember being like, ‘oh my god, I have cancer,’ but the way my parents told me, they said I’d just have a tube laced in my chest. I remember it being upsetting, but I didn’t exactly know why I was upset,” Carlton says, recalling her time in treatment.
After completing her outpatient treatment, Carlton eventually was in remission and then finally told she was cancer-free. However, cancer isn’t just a disease that ends once the chemo is done and the physical side effects go away. It’s something that takes a toll on anyone’s mental health, especially a child’s.
At eight years old I was severely depressed. I had survivor’s guilt. I met so many amazing and strong people, yet they passed away and I didn’t. I didn’t see what my purpose was here.
As she reached her middle school years, Carlton was still dealing with the side effects and aftermath of chemotherapy and radiation. Because of the radiation, her growth was stunted. There is also a chance that she may be infertile due to receiving so much radiation to the abdomen. She also has to closely monitor her heart because the doxorubicin chemotherapy drug has links to heart disease.
Prior to cancer, she never had any concerns regarding any of these, which just shows how strong the drugs are. There is a lifetime limit for doxorubicin, and Carlton exceeded that during her treatment.
If dealing with all of these affects as a young teen wasn’t enough, her sophomore year of high school, Carlton was once again faced with cancer.
She discovered a lump on her jaw the summer before her sophomore year, but once again, most people assumed it was nothing to worry about. After tests and hospital visits, though, it proved to be osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. In order to remove the tumor, Carlton underwent a 12 hour surgery.
After having cancer for a second time, Carlton’s perception of beauty was slightly altered. After the surgery that restructured her face, she didn’t feel like herself.
“The surgery was so challenging because it shook my self confidence. I look in the mirror sometimes and I don’t even look like myself,” Carlton says.
After the initial surgery, Carlton’s jaw is still uneven. She will have reconstructive surgery this summer in order to try to even things out a bit.
While the lasting physical side effects definitely took a toll on Carlton, the mental health repercussions were just as serious, if not worse this time around. Because she was treated completely inpatient for her second diagnosis, she was more secluded from the outside world then ever before. There were days where she wanted to give up because she didn’t think she could continue on.
At times she felt so weak and not brave enough to fight the disease, but that’s when her sister and her parents, whom Carlton describes as her biggest support system, stepped in.
People assume that we’re really strong. People would be like, ‘oh my god you’re so strong,’ but they never saw the behind the scenes. I almost got annoyed because I didn’t think I was strong. Some kids handle it so much better than I could have. I let it get the best of me sometimes.
She admits that there are better days than others, but coming to Penn State and finding her home away from home has helped her discover more about herself and her passions.
While still dealing with mental health effects of cancer, Carlton has found an outlet and a purpose through THON.
As a freshman, she was a member of Olivia Pigza’s Dancer Relations Committee, and since THON 2019, she has never looked back. Her sister, who was an entertainment captain for THON 2019, inspired her to get involved with the largest student-run philanthropy in the world.
“I first became friends with [Catrina’s] sister through THON and learned about what it was like to see her sister battle cancer. The world works in mysterious ways, and when it came time to select committee members for Dancer Relations, Catrina and I were brought together,” says Olivia Pigza, one of the Dancer Relations captains for THON 2019.
“It was never a doubt in my mind that I would get involved. I knew I had to. I feel like I’m more comfortable with myself knowing it’s ok to talk about. In the future, I want everything I do to be based on THON,” Carlton says.
In the future, she hopes to follow in her sister’s footsteps by becoming a THON captain, a primary chair for Tri Sigma or Club Equestrian or maybe even take on the full 46 hours one year.
Carlton’s story has touched many people, but her captain Olivia Pigza was particularly inspired from the moment she heard her story.
“In her first year involved with THON, she has inspired many people and there’s no doubt in my mind that she will continue to flourish and impact others during the rest of her time at Penn State,” Pigza says.
Carlton hopes to pursue a career in nursing after graduating from Penn State in 2022. No matter what she ends up doing in her future, she wants to somehow make an impact on other children and the medical community.
Being a nurse is just one way I can impact the families. It brings me back to how those people were some of the most impactful. They shaped that journey for me and made it more positive. I want to be able to do that for other people.