At 13, sports and junior high were front and center — until a brain cancer diagnosis changed everything

Kelsey Afdem
Kelsey Afdem Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

When you're 13 years old, you expect to be making new friends in junior high and having slumber parties, not dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

In 1998 I was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of pediatric brain tumor. The diagnosis came out of nowhere. I was very active in sports at the time. I started to notice that when I would run in volleyball practice or in a basketball game, I got pounding headaches that would subside once I stopped or reluctantly took myself out of the game.

I went to my pediatrician a handful of times but they could not give me a diagnosis. This went on for a couple months. One day I went for an annual eye exam, thinking I would be able to make it back in time for my volleyball game later that day.

That's not what happened.

Kelsey Afdem kayaking near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Kelsey Afdem kayaking near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo courtesy Kelsey Afdem

My mom and I didn't get home until 8:00 that night. When examining my eyes with the light, my optometrist saw that the optic nerve in my left eye was quite swollen and immediately referred me to a neuro-ophthalmologist in Seattle for an MRI. By 5 p.m., we were staring at a brain tumor on my scans. Needless to say this was quite a shock to me and my family.

A few weeks later I had surgery to remove the golf ball-sized tumor that had wrapped itself around my cerebellum. My surgery went as well as possible based on the tumor location. I came out of surgery with symptoms that mirrored a stroke patient and would have lots of physical therapy ahead of me, learning to walk again and to trying to regain movement on my left side.

Two months after my surgery, I had 30 days of radiation at UW and several months of chemotherapy at Seattle Children's, and I was eventually deemed cancer free.

I can't do everything I used to do before my diagnosis, but in the nearly 15 years that I have been cancer free, I have been able to travel to some amazing places and take part in incredible activities. I am extremely grateful for the care I received that made these things possible.

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.