Term Papers, Studying Abroad, and Fighting Cancer

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My junior year of college was one of the worst years of my life. 

My “downfall” began the summer following the completion of my sophomore year at a small liberal arts college in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. I went to the doctor because I had been having strange symptoms, like fatigue and general illness. At the appointment, my doctor noticed a lump on my neck; I had a cold and assumed it was general swelling. It was near my clavicle, so I was ordered to have some tests done. 

I was unable to get these tests done immediately because days later, I went to Italy for a month on a study abroad trip. I had planned this trip months in advance as part of my school’s study abroad policy. 

I had a great experience, but I would look in the mirror and see the lump on my neck every day. I wore the same necklace all the time in Italy, which emphasized the abnormality. I knew this was something to check on when I got home, but I didn’t think it would turn out to be a serious matter.

Back in the States, I had the tests done, and everything came back normal. Everything seemed fine, the lump on my neck would occasionally swell and become a lot more noticeable. I eventually scheduled another doctor’s appointment with an ENT, which is when the word “cancer” started to be thrown around. 

How could I have cancer?

I was young, healthy, and felt fine other than having an abnormal lump on my neck. That was my rationale.

Getting cancer results isn’t something that happens quickly, at least not in my case. School had started, so I went back to college as a junior. I returned home to Doylestown occasionally for doctors’ appointments. To make this work, I took a lighter course load. Having switched to a double major, I was already a little behind. Having to take fewer classes than expected did not help this issue. 

About a month into my junior year, I was scheduled for a final biopsy that involved removing a lymph node from my swollen neck. Going into the surgery, there was really only one possible diagnosis left: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the blood. Although I did not know much about this type of cancer, it felt good to have a diagnosis and a name for what I was up against.

I had my surgery and eventually found an oncologist in Philly to start the treatment process. As it turns out, the cancer spread from my neck out into my upper body, so I had to undergo six months of chemotherapy treatment. “Cancer” may sound scary, but Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is fairly treatable/curable, so I was never worried about beating it. 

I underwent treatment every other week, so this meant driving home every other Thursday night. I would go to my chemo treatments on Fridays, recover over the weekend, and return back to school. And this was a three-hour drive each way. On top of this, I had to keep up with my coursework, even though I was dealing with quite an ordeal. It wasn’t easy, but it was manageable.  

Although I was undergoing treatment, the emotional side-effects of having cancer were worse than the actual treatment. I started drifting away from close friends and was often excluded from plans. I felt completely isolated at school and did not enjoy being there. Add in a falling out with a close friend – who was selfish in the face of my diagnosis and treatment – and I was stressed but stronger for it in the end. 

Feeling so uninvolved in school and my classes was not easy for me. I was a type-A student and didn’t want to miss out on any assignment or lesson. Eventually, I had to get used to my new schedule of missing class every other week. It was an adjustment period, but beating cancer had to be the priority in my life. 

The worst part about treatment was losing my hair. It’s a common side-effect, and it is just as awful as other cancer patients describe it. Watching part of my identity fall out each day made me incredibly depressed.

About two months into treatment, I had barely any hair left and decided to shave my head. This was an empowering moment. Once I had no more hair left to lose, I felt better. The stress of watching my hair fall out was eliminated, and I could focus on other aspects of my life. It was no longer a daily reminder of what I was going through. 

I am fortunate because chemo didn’t make me feel that bad. I was able to attend school, and I maintained a 4.0 the entire year. I finished treatment in March of my junior year, and each checkup since then has been normal. I am fortunate because, although I had cancer, it could have been a lot worse. I’m not worried about it coming back or hindering my life any more than it already has. 

Reflecting on this time in my life has allowed me to realize that I am a stronger person. Now that I am a cancer survivor, I have no tolerance for the unimportant issues that my peers get so caught up in. I refuse to indulge those that are trying to bring me down in life or hold me back from who I want to be. These stressers and emotional beat downs keep coming, but I rise above. 

While some people my age are stressed about issues such as getting a paper done on time or school events, I’m simply thankful that I don’t have to deal with cancer anymore. I know that others can’t fully understand what I went through or my attitude towards life now, but that isn’t important to me. 

I conquered cancer at a young age, and no one can take that away from me.