Cancer. It’s a scary word. It’s not something people talk about. In fact, there are tons of ways people talk about cancer without ever using the word:
- How’s your illness?
- When do you meet with your doctor to talk about your condition?
- I heard about your diagnosis…
- How are you with your…. *trails off into awkward silence*
All of these are just as cringe worthy as saying “cancer,” but people say what’s comfortable for them and that’s okay. Cancer is a dark and scary subject that no one likes talk or think about. As a healthy 20 year old female, I never think about it. Why would I? I’m in the middle of getting my BA Drama Major with a Business Administration Minor at UW-Stevens Point. I’m a stage manager and I’m an active member of my sorority. My friends are great, my family is greater and I have an unhealthy obsession with coffee and my english mastiff/golden retriever mixed breed named Chester.
Well, I was all these things a couple months ago. It started during syllabus week. I was sitting in my business management class listening to the professor carry on about the nitty gritty details of a syllabus that I was sure to lose by the end of the week. I was over this class and it was only the first day. Of course, I couldn’t leave so I did the next best thing when I’m tense: a neck massage! And it was splendid, but there was something strange when I brushed against the left side of my neck. Upon further investigation it was a bump about the width of two nickels sitting just above my collar bone. It was strange but I figured that it was a swollen lymph node and I would feel the symptoms of strep in a couple days.
The rest of the day carried on as it normally would. I went to my classes, attended rehearsals and did my homework. But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking of that stupid bump. It was in such a weird spot and it kept bugging me that it was abnormally large. To ease my mind I gave my dad, the only doctor I know, a call to get his opinion on the matter. He had the same thoughts I did: it’s weird spot to get a swollen lymph node but it’s probably strep or something minor and will go away in a few days.
Still urked about the whole issue, I expressed my concerns to my roommates and they said to go to the Health Services Center and get a strep test. I’d feel better mentally and receive the meds I needed to get healthy. One of my roommates actually called the center and threw me on the phone so I’d have to set up the appointment (thank you Megan).
The next day, I went in to my appointment. After some blood work and a thorough examination of the bump, they determined that I was perfectly healthy. In fact, I was excellent. My cell counts were astoundingly normal and my vitals were excellent. Needless to say, I did not have strep. So what then? Well, the next step was to look at the bump a little closer. I got an ultrasound and x-ray done on the site. While the x-ray didn’t show anything useful, the ultrasound proved to be more interesting. Not only was the one lymph node swollen, but all of the lymph nodes in my neck were swollen.
I know what you’re thinking, “Duh Dana! Of course you know it’s cancer! That’s all it could possibly be.” Actually no. At this point I didn’t even think it was cancer and neither did the doctors. While it could still be a possibility, it was barely a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Again, my blood work, specifically my white cell count, T cells, and my thyroid check were all so good that it didn’t make sense that the diagnosis would be cancer. I also wasn’t suffering from any B symptoms which are secondary symptoms like night sweats, fevers, weight loss, etc. that are seen in a patient and can be used to identify and stage lymphoma cancers. At the time I honestly thought it was cat scratch fever. I still kind of hope it’s cat scratch fever!
Moving forward. My doctor at the student health center couldn’t do much more for me beyond this point so she sent me to an oncologist at Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wisconsin. It was there in that first meeting that I had more lab work done and was tested for several potential diseases and infections. My oncologist was very pleasant and worked with my family and I to help us understand what he was testing for and why. He wanted to get a better understanding of my circumstances and also to gather as much information as he could before he made any hasty decisions. It was nice to talk to such a steady person after what seemed like weeks of constant questions and being tossed around and just overall stressed out at the lack of answers.
Of course, all the lab results came back negative and we were back at square 1. The only thing left to do was a biopsy. More specifically, an excisional biopsy of the neck lymph node (aka yanking the whole stupid lymph node out). And on October 27, I got the surgery done.
And on October 31, I got a call from my oncologist saying I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
I’m not going to lie to you, I cried. A lot. Ugly tears. The ones you only showed your mom when you were eight because you scraped up your knee on the concrete. THOSE tears. I was scared. Really scared. I didn’t care that there was an 85% or higher survival rate. A trained professional just told me I had cancer. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “good cancer.” It’s cancer. And there’s only one way to treat that: by shoving toxins (that can also kill you) into your body until it goes away. That’s some scary stuff and I didn’t get a choice in the matter. No one ever does.
The next couple weeks after that were a hectic blur. During this time I was still in school, trying desperately to keep up with my classes that I was never in because of doctor appointments. I had to get a port put in, go through a series of tests to determine the stage of the cancer and try to figure out what I was going to do. I was overwhelmed and I wanted to be done but the process hadn’t even started.
After the testing, it was determined I had stage 2A Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The 2 means that the cancer is above my diaphragm and the A means I show no B symptoms. The use of the A and B is a way for doctors to predict, treat and track my cancer. I was to start treatment on November 14th and undergo 4-6 cycles of chemotherapy. For those that are unfamiliar with cancer and cancer terms, a cycle is 30 days and two chemo treatments occur during one cycle: one on day 1 and the second on day 15.
Because the treatment process was so fast, there really wasn’t a way for me to stay in school. That was the hardest news to hear. I had just settled into my major and I was doing well. I had a plan and I couldn’t follow through because my body wouldn’t let me.
So I dropped out of school, moved into an apartment just off campus, and prepared myself to face the next adventure in my life: getting myself healthy again.
Now, here I am almost two months later. I’ve finished nearly two cycles of treatment and things are going well. I’m not a student right now and I’m inactive in my sorority. I’m not a stage manager. But my friends are still great and my family is still greater. Seriously, without them I’m not sure where I would be. I still have an unhealthy obsession with coffee (decaf now) and my dog Chester. What I’ve discovered is that it’s all okay. I’m not on the path that I had originally set out on. It’s much different than where I imagined myself, but I’m still doing really good things (well, trying): writing a script, taking an online class, creating a blog. And that’s okay. One day soon I’ll finish my degree and get back on the path I had created. I’m eagerly awaiting that day.
Call it whatever you like: an illness, diagnosis or nothing at all. It sucks. Cancer sucks. There’s no other way to put that. It can kill you if you don’t catch it (or in my case, accidentally brush against it during a less than interesting lecture about a syllabus). But you know what? I’m still here. And I’m doing great and I will continue to do so despite it.
Until next time,