A COLLEGE FRESHMEN FACES A CANCER DIAGNOSIS
By Elizabeth Thilmany
The symptoms I habitually pushed off as stressors from my first semester of college, began to accumulate. Throughout the semester I felt less like my healthy self because of coughing, abnormal skin reactions, unexplainable fatigue and diminishing motivation.
There was a relief when my diagnosis came over winter break. I now knew there was a potential fix for the growing list of symptoms from cancer, and they were not simply figments of my imagination. After the official diagnosis of stage III Hodgkin lymphoma, it was decided I would withdraw from the University of Maryland for the upcoming spring semester with the hope of returning in the fall after treatment.
For the first time in my life, everything was put on hold. I had one job: to get better. Living back home to receive an aggressive treatment of A+AVD chemotherapy after the taste of freedom the university life offered was one of many challenges.
My doctor affirmed my struggle was similar to other 19-year-old females diagnosed with cancer. For my peers, this is a time of self-discovery, education, growth, and fun. However, I was stopped and forced to battle the hardest physical struggles, the possibility of death and the unknown of the future, including the 1 in 3 chance of my prescribed chemotherapy regiment leaving me infertile.
Giving Back: Donating My Hair
I discovered I could utilize the fundamental aspects of my personality to find the best me during treatment. My solution was to give. Cancer is a job that drains your energy and wreaks havoc on your physical body and mental space, but by tapping into my inner strength I was able to find the energy to help others.
Before my first chemotherapy treatment, I donated the majority of my hair. I chose a pixie cut, opting for a stylish hairdo I did not have to commit to for long.
I went back to the salon to bleach my hair. Then after my first treatment, I dyed my hair violet purple — the color of the Hodgkin lymphoma cancer ribbon. This was my favorite hair transition because it was meaningful and unique. When my hair started to fall out, I decided to dye it one last time — the color black. It turns out I was a blonde for reason. Black hair did not suit me. Somehow that helped prepare me for when I went back to the salon to shave off what was left of my hair.
I was able to make the transition of losing my hair more manageable by donating it and continuing to have fun before the inevitable. I’ve spoken with other cancer patients and survivors and it is my understanding that some people struggle with losing their hair more than others. I would say my emotions were somewhere in the middle. But now being weeks out from my last treatment, I am anxious for my hair to start growing back.
Finding a Greater Purpose
I became stir crazy in my house and decided to look for a job. I was hired as a line-worker at a fast-casual restaurant local to Fort Collins, Colorado, where I was receiving treatment. With a renewed focus to help the business thrive through customer service, I was able to have moments where I did not focus on cancer. Being inspired and distracted through conversation with coworkers and customers helped me find strength and motivation.
During my high school’s annual fundraiser for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), I was honored to make a video to share my story. Planning with staff and student leaders resulted in a meaningful and successful fundraiser. In three weeks, Fort Collins High School raised funds, held a hat and scarf donation for the local infusion center and made cards for local cancer patients. I was proud. The school was inspired. And the community was touched.
LLS is an important organization for my family. My aunt has been battling myeloma for ten years and LLS has provided her with education and support, while also funding groundbreaking research to find cures. During my treatment, I attended a regional LLS Blood Cancer Conference where I learned coping strategies and found a new friend my age who survived going through almost the same exact treatment as I did. Further, I know that funding groundbreaking research can lead to lives saved. In fact, because of LLS’s long-term investment in research, I was given brentuximab as a first line treatment.
Most importantly, LLS has provided me an outlet to share the many words in my mind, passion in my heart and ideas. By having my own blog and sharing my story with other patients through LLS Community and on this blog, I am able to connect with others and receive incredible support.
This is no way to sugarcoat what I and other patients go through when faced with a diagnosis of cancer. Every journey through cancer is unique, but by investing the little energy left I have found the energy to grow.
Elizabeth’s last day of chemotherapy was June 14, 2018. She is planning to go back to college this fall. To read more about her story, visit her blog at https://baldsocks.com.