Some days, her 34-year-old body feels like that of a 70-year-old woman as she battles a form of metastatic thyroid cancer.
Thursday, however, Kristina Lansdell was more of a young child at a birthday party when presented with a scholarship check for $1,000 by Summit Quest, a nonprofit organization that supports educational efforts of those touched by cancer.
“This is such a great honor,” Lansdell, a former hair stylist, told a room full of family and Harbin Clinic staff at the check presentation ceremony at Harbin Clinic Cancer Center. “Having to put my schooling on hold for so long because it was just too hard and now that I’m a single mom with two kids, I am more driven right now than I have ever been in my whole life. I’m ready to finish this stuff and get it over with and be where I need to be in life, for my kids and everyone else in my family.”
Taking Shorter University’s online classes in business administration before continuing on to earn a master’s degree in health care administration would be difficult for anyone raising children on their own. Add a full-time job as an administrative assistant in Harbin’s medical oncology and hematology office and ongoing treatment for various health concerns and that’s a nearly superhuman situation.
But that just seems to be the way Lansdell lives her life, according to her mother, Julianna Wilson.
“We’re very proud of her. She’s a go-getter,” said Wilson, who had a minor case of lung cancer several years ago. “We feel very blessed for this help from Summit Quest. She’s worked so hard for so long.”
Lansdell had been diagnosed with thyroid disease as a teenager — a condition shared by her grandmother, Anneliese Mathews. It would be years later, just after giving birth to her son Noah, that doctors would discover her Stage 3 papillary thyroid carcinoma that had metastasized to her lymph nodes.
Noah, now 11, had been born with a tear in his lung and was in the neonatal intensive care unit when she was diagnosed.
“I got that news pretty much at the same time, so that was fun,” she said the day before the Summit Quest presentation, explaining that she had suffered from severe heartburn during her pregnancy and developed ulcers in her esophagus. “I couldn’t eat or drink for 10 days. So they finally did a CT scan and found the lymph nodes.”
After thyroid surgery, she underwent isotope radiation therapy, which required her to be quarantined away from her family for about a month.
“A month is a long time when you’re stir crazy and your family and friends come by and all they can do is wave through the window because they can’t make contact with you,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “Then the cancer recurred four months later and they took the whole thyroid out and more lymph nodes.”
Aside from the sheer physical toll her illness has taken, Lansdell estimates she owes upwards of $200,000 in medical bills.
“I’m going to die with that debt,” she said, adding she went bankrupt in 2016 and was even homeless for a bit after she and her husband divorced.
She stressed she is trying to only look forward now, reaching for her dream of running a cancer clinic one day.
“I absolutely love working with patients because I understand what they’re going through,” she said.
It’s that same empathy that lead to the creation of Summit Quest in 2010, followed by the designation of the Roy Philpot Scholarship Fund, which has now benefited three people whose lives have been touched by cancer.
William James founded Summit Quest after losing his father to lung cancer in 2007. The name of the organization was inspired by his father’s last request: To have his ashes scattered on the summit of one of his favorite Alaska mountains.
Thursday was actually the anniversary of his father’s passing, James said.
The fund was named after the father of Nancy Ely, office manager of Harbin’s OB-GYN group.
“When my dad was in his last year of chemo here at Harbin, I noticed there were some patients who didn’t have anyone to support them or even be with them during their treatments,” said Ely, explaining that she felt compelled to begin fundraising activities for Summit Quest. “All the money we raise goes back to Summit Quest to benefit people like Kristina. They were kind enough to honor my dad by naming the scholarship after him.”
Ely said those needing assistance can apply for the scholarship, including submitting an essay about themselves. She said when she read Lansdell’s essay, the decision was easy.
“It was a no-brainer,” Ely said as she enjoyed a lunch buffet after the ceremony. “It was beautiful.”