‘My cancer diagnosis: What I wish I’d known’ – Hannah Komai

July 16, 2013 | by

One in a series of stories asking former patients to reflect upon their experiences...

Hannah Komai’s right leg had been hurting for months.

So in the summer of 2010, when she came to Southern California to visit family members and accompany them to a Dodger game, she also made time to visit an orthopedist.

Hannah Komai meets  Scotty McCreery at City of Hope's Celebrity Softball Challenge in June 2013

Hannah Komai meets Scotty McCreery at City of Hope's Celebrity Softball Challenge in June 2013

That’s when Komai, then 20, learned that the source of her nagging pain was osteosarcoma – cancer of the bone.

“My normal life,” she recalled, “was put on pause.”

She had been living in Tacoma, Wash., where she had finished junior college and was about to enter Pacific Lutheran College on a scholarship to become a physical therapist.

Instead she would be spending her summer – and foreseeable future – at City of Hope.

Komai knew the hospital well.  Only a year before, she had visited her father, Neil, there while he was being treated for prostate cancer.  Now, barely out of her teens, she was locking eyes with cancer.

She was referred to City of Hope under the care of Judith Sato, M.D., director of the Musculoskeletal Tumor Program, where she underwent 15 weeks of intense chemotherapy.  Dominic Femino, M.D., chief of the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, then removed about six inches of her right femur, her knee and several inches of her tibia, replacing them with titanium and stainless steel. After months of additional chemotherapy, Komai finally went into remission.

She remembers spending her 21st birthday using a walker to regain her footing. She underwent months of intensive physical therapy, before learning to walk normally again.

After her recovery she volunteered at City of Hope’s new patient desk, guiding patients down the same corridors she had traveled while in treatment.

She also has shared her story with different City of Hope audiences, speaking to patients on Survivors’ Day and taking part in fundraising opportunities such as the ThinkCure! Weekend, which raises money for research at City of Hope and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

During the 2011 event, Komai was chosen to throw out the first pitch to a fellow survivor – her dad, then meet with baseball icons Andre Ethier and Tommy Lasorda. For this former Little Leaguer who used to bring her mitt to Dodgers games as a child, “it was the best day of my life,” Komai said at the time.

This season, she has only made it to one Dodgers game, because these days, Komai is too busy to be a bystander.

After all, it’s summer again, and she's creating new best days of her life.

In June, she and her boyfriend, CJ Perez, traveled to Nashville, Tenn., where Komai took part in City of Hope’s Celebrity Softball Challenge, and got the chance to meet country and western music luminaries such as Brett Eldridge and Scotty McCreery.

“CJ and I were in heaven! We both are country music fans, so it was amazing. I'm hopeful I will find my way back there again someday.”

Komai and Perez also are in the midst of exploring Europe this summer. "We're traveling just because every young person needs to travel through Europe!" wrote Komai from her iPhone during the journey.

When they return, 23-year-old Komai will be preparing to enroll in Mount St. Mary’s College in Brentwood, Calif., where she’ll be pursuing a nursing degree. She eventually wants to work with pediatric cancer patients at City of Hope.

We recently asked Komai to look back at the time of her diagnosis and ask herself, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What wisdom, soothing words or practical tips would you give your newly diagnosed self?

Her responses:

1. Attitude is everything. If you let the cancer get you, it will. Stay positive. Allow yourself to have bad moments, but try not to have bad days.

2. Anytime you feel just a little hungry, eat something. Or, anytime you don't feel nauseous, eat something. Having a healthy, strong body is necessary in beating the disease.

3. Journal the good – and the bad. Journaling helped me get the things off my chest that I didn't want to share with others in fear of scaring them.

4. Stay as active as possible. This keeps your brain occupied from the reality of the situation.

5. Listen to your doctor! They know what's best. If you have a question, ask. It's better to be safe than sorry!