My story with cancer began long before I was diagnosed this year at 33. When I was 4 years old, my 18-month-old sister, Hannah, became too tired to play with me. As a child, I didn’t know what was going on, but something seemed wrong. My mom started taking her to doctor after doctor to find out what was happening. It wasn’t until we visited my grandmother in Florida that she had to go to the ER, and our family got the concerning news that she may have cancer. We flew back to our home in Los Angeles, and after a Herculean effort from the UCLA medical team, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
After chemotherapy failed and a year of other failed treatments, she was admitted into a trial for an experimental stem cell transplant. It worked. Now 28 years later, she is happy, healthy, and living her fullest life.
Twenty-eight years later, the memory of her cancer and our family trauma felt like a distant memory, and we were safe until 2020.
With the world fearful of Covid, I felt lucky. I was young, fit, and healthy. I started to shed a few pounds off of my already thin frame but shrugged it off to work stress and longer workouts. Then I started coughing. It became difficult to breathe. In my head, I had gotten Covid. I went to an urgent care center and received a negative Covid test. They wrote thought it was probably a seasonal cold. Then the chest and back pains started. Back in the ER, another negative test. This time they once again told me to take cough syrup, and wait it out.
Then I wasn’t doing anything else ― coughing, constant pain, so tired I couldn’t even muster the energy to decorate for Christmas. This wasn’t Covid, the common cold, or seasonal depression. Then I saw a doctor who took my cough and other symptoms seriously. After running a few diagnostics, they saw an 11 cm mass in my chest. The next day was filled with more tests and care. My husband and I couldn’t process what was happening, just hoping that some test would come back proving that they are all wrong. Then on my 33rd birthday, the results of the biopsy came back, and it was confirmed that I had lymphoma. And just like that, cancer was back in my life and my family’s.
I am incredibly lucky to live in Chicago where I got the best doctors in the world to cure me. My official diagnosis was grey zone lymphoma (GZL). The survival rate is 65%. My treatment plan was grueling, heartbreaking, physically demanding, and intense. Those four months of treatment opened a new world for me. I can’t explain the gravity of the philosophical and spiritual awakening I experienced during this time. I spent four months in pain with little sleep due to the side effect of insomnia, completely quarantined, trapped in my mind, and exploring every memory, feeling, and connection I’ve made in my life.
I had so many memories that I started to look at differently. Memories that once brought shame, feelings of weakness, or anger were replaced with a new view of gratitude for every stupid little moment I’ve had in my life. So, I started to make lists in my head. In the most depressingly way, I made a list of people who would be impacted if I fell into the 35% and died. My list was very, very small: my husband, my sister, my best friend, my brother, and my parents. In all of my thoughts, pain, and treatment, this list was the only thing that truly made me sad.
Halfway through the treatment, my PET scan revealed the cancer was not visible, and I was officially in remission. I had three rounds left, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. This could actually be over. I could be in the 65%.
The last day of treatment was an incredibly emotional experience. We had chosen to keep my cancer and treatment a bit of a secret. It was on a need-to-know basis. The last day of treatment was also the day I made things social media official. That’s when an overwhelming amount of support started. I started getting messages from people from all different stages of my life. Friends from childhood told me how certain things I did impacted them. Teachers reached out sharing memories and messages. Old coworkers. Old clients. Current clients. The CEO of my company. This list I had in my head of my true impact being my husband, sister, best friend, brother, and parents was much larger than I had sadly curated in my head weeks before.
If I could go back in time with a magic wand and eliminate my cancer, I would. But I can’t. What I can do is move forward with this experience and all of its lessons etched and carved in me. I am stronger because of this. I am kinder because of this. I am calmer, smarter, balanced, and can love and feel more because of this.