I was diagnosed with Stage 3B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was 25 years old in 1997. Whenever I think back and reflect on my experience with cancer, there are two life lessons that have stayed with me almost 25 years later after remission.
It was January. I was a non-traditional college student working on completing my bachelor’s degree when I came down with a very bad case of the flu that had me sidelined for a few weeks. It was not uncommon for my lymph nodes to swell whenever I was sick, but two months after recovering from the flu, my lymph nodes were still swollen. I was also experiencing weight loss, extreme fatigue, and night sweats that left my sheets and mattress drenched every night. I didn’t think much of these symptoms and quickly dismissed each of them in my mind. The weight loss? I had started working out to feel better, so naturally the weight loss was the result of my hard work. The extreme fatigue? I was a college student and working a job, so of course I was tired. As for the night sweats, I blamed them on a new down comforter I had purchased which I assumed was working a little to well to keep me warm at night.
It was the beginning of March, and the overall swelling of my lymph nodes eventually subsided. However, a lump the size of a quarter still remained under my right arm pit. It wasn’t terribly painful, but more uncomfortable than anything else. So much so, that I made an appointment with student health services. During the appointment, I only mentioned the lump and hadn’t thought to mention the other symptoms. The health care provider examined the lump and asked no other questions about my immediate medical history. The health care provider ruled the lump the result of a spider bite or an infected hair follicle as the result of shaving. I explained that I had only shaved under my arm that morning for the appointment and asked if it was normal for the reaction from a spider bite to persist for two months. I was told to apply a topical analgesic cream and sent on my merry way.
A couple of weeks later, the lump was still there. On a weekend visit home, I asked my mother to feel the lump under my arm to see if she knew what it might be. I will never forget my mother’s reaction or the alarmed look on her face as she touched the lump and immediately recoiled at the size. She began asking me questions about how long it had been there, had I been to the doctor, what had I been eating, etc. She, thinking it was something related to my health as a woman, encouraged me to make an appointment with our family’s gynecologist. During my first appointment with Dr. Smith (not his real name), he examined me and was also immediately concerned. Unlike my experience with the student health services, he asked me a ton of questions which all seemed random and unrelated. He ordered blood work and said he wanted to monitor the lump. My follow-up appointment was scheduled approximately four weeks later.
During the follow-up appointment, Dr. Smith examined me and stated that the lump had grown since he last saw me. This coupled with the results of the blood work prompted him to order a biopsy of my right axillary to remove the lump. One week later, the Friday before Memorial Day, I am sitting in Dr. Smith’s office with my mother. He tells us the biopsy revealed that the lump removed (now the size of a golf ball) was malignant. The presence of Reed-Sternberg cells found during the pathology indicated that it was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He also shared that weight loss, fatigue, and night sweats were very common symptoms associated with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.