INDIANAPOLIS — For nurse Rhea Watson, the oncology floor at Riley Children's Health isn't just her workplace. It is a space where she overcame a major obstacle as a teen.
"Two weeks before I graduated from high school is when I was diagnosed with leukemia," Watson said. "Really as soon as I was diagnosed, I was treated the next day."
Watson started her cancer journey at the Simon Cancer Center, as an 18-year-old. She eventually transferred to Riley where she completed her treatment and beat cancer.
"It's hard. And there's not a lot of people who understand going through cancer at such a young age, and getting all of these toxic chemos, and so it's hard to even talk to anybody about your struggles," said Watson, who has now been working in oncology for several years.
She says she finds her passion talking to her patients and giving them hope for their futures. She know what it is like as a teenage girl and worry about losing her hair during chemo. She remembers missing big events for treatment like a high school graduation or going off to college.
And now, more than a decade after beating cancer, Watson has a new calling.
After working as a registered nurse in the infusion clinic for six years, she was approached to take on an additional role as the fertility coordinator and adolescent young adult program coordinator.
It is a newer program and Watson is part of a team working to get this off the ground.
Typically, when talking about kids and cancer, fertility isn't a topic that comes to mind. But Watson told WRTV there are a lot of unknowns as to how different amounts of these chemotherapy drugs can impact your future fertility.
She said when she was first diagnosed, she was not counseled on how the treatment could impact her fertility so her position now helps to arm families with knowledge on this complex topic.
"So that's where I get my huge passion for being able to like counsel these families and tell them exactly what their risk is, and if they are in that intermediate ground (for the amount of chemo given) we might be able to do something for them to help with their future fertility," Watson said.
To some families, learning about a cancer diagnosis in a child and then talking about that child's ability to have children of their own is overwhelming and Watson says that is very understandable. But she said for many families, talking about this topic can provide hope in a dark time.
"We're there kind of being the hope of the situation," Watson said. "We are very hopeful and we think your kid is going to make it to the future, so let's talk about their fertility."
Watson said there is a new of new research on the topic of fertility preservation for cancer patients, but there is still a lot to learn.
She said there are small procedures like removing a tiny bit of sex organ tissue and freezing it to be re-implanted in the future, or use for IVF someday. They also offer more traditional methods of fertility preservation for post-pubertal patients like sperm and egg banking. The storage fees for families can come at an expense, but Riley works to help families find financial help for these procedures and storage fees.
Watson added that there is also hope that if they preserve some of this tissue now, in the future more fertility treatments will be covered by insurance.
"What's crazy is we've actually counseled on a 6-week-old baby before," Watson said. "We can help any of these kids."
Throughout her journey in fertility preservation, Watson said she has tried to stay positive about her own journey to motherhood, not knowing what that would look like for her after her treatments for leukemia as a young adult.
"I just didn't know what my journey looked like," Watson said. "I had talked to my husband. I had told him even before we got engaged and married, and all that. I told him I didn't know what that looked like."
With her husband, Zach, Watson decided she would give herself a year of trying to start a family before consulting with a fertility specialist. Last fall, after about 10 months of trying to conceive, Watson decided it was time to make an appointment with a fertility specialist knowing it may take several months to get in to see the doctor.
She planned to call the doctor's office on a Wednesday this past fall to make an appointment.
"And I took a (pregnancy) test on Tuesday night, just to rule it out. I didn't think I was pregnant at all," Watson said. "I was like, 'OK. I'll just take this to rule it out.'"
But then something unexpected took place at their Bargersville home.
"And then I took it and was like, 'Oh my gosh! This is positive,'" Watson said.
An answer to their many prayers and years of wondering and hoping, the Watsons are preparing for a baby boy to make his arrival this summer.
As Zach works on hanging shelves and painting the nursery, Rhea folds baby clothes and hand-me-downs from excited relatives.
"It is exciting to have a Mother's Day where it's like, OK, next year I'm going to be holding this baby," says Watson. "I'm looking forward to just what that brings for the years to come and being a mom."
For Watson, from her cancer to her recovery, to her job as a nurse in oncology to her position as the fertility coordinator, to now a mom-to-be — her story has come full circle.
But it doesn't end here. She has work to do to help other kids like her be able to have kids of their own someday too.
"It's so hard to understand why you go through what you go through," Watson said. "For me, I had to find a purpose. And I had to find a why. And that's what really brought me into oncology and especially into the fertility preservation program here at Riley."
Click here for more information on this topic and the cancer center at Riley.