I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 11. The first question I asked after my biopsy was if I could go to a school dance that night. Following that dance, I began 7 months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Although the experience forced me to grow up quickly in many ways, having cancer at such a young age was more surreal than anything. After 18 years with no recurrence, I thought the worst was behind me and that I had paid my dues; cancer was “in my past.”
Then, in the fall of 2005, I noticed a tiny swollen gland in my neck. I had it checked out just to be safe. My doctor assured me it was nothing, but the swelling got worse so I had it scanned. The scan reveled that I had developed a thyroid goiter that tested negative for cancer. I followed up with a specialist and, on her recommendation, had my thyroid removed to avoid further complications. A month later, I received the news; they had found two small tumors on my thyroid.
Ironically, having thyroid cancer probably saved my life. Before receiving radioactive iodine therapy, the standard protocol, I asked how the potential risks might be compounded by the radiation treatments I received as a child. It was with this question that I was referred to the HERO’S clinic at Yale Cancer Center.
The HERO'S clinic is devoted to survivors of childhood cancers and focuses on the detection and treatment of complications from cancer treatment in childhood. On my first visit in September 2006, the doctors examined me, provided information, and ordered a number of tests to monitor risks specific to my treatment history.
Everything checked out fine, with one exception. They saw what they called “several suspicious areas” on my first MRI screen for breast cancer. Over the next few months I had many biopsies. All came back inconclusive or showing precancerous changes. In January 2007, I had a lumpectomy to remove four of the “suspicious areas.” Eighteen years after my original diagnosis, and less than a year from my second, I faced a third diagnosis of Stage I breast cancer. Two weeks later, I had a double mastectomy. Armed with a healthy dose of humor and the support of many wonderful friends and family, I prevailed over cancer once again. Still, it remains one of the darkest times in my life.
Being diagnosed with cancer is a shock. Being diagnosed with three different cancers—two in the same year and all before your 30th birthday—is downright unimaginable. That sense of being a survivor was something I’d connected with most of my life. But now, I felt completely alone. I didn’t know any childhood cancer survivors, and I didn’t feel I could relate to people experiencing cancer for the first time. I already had a lifetime of experience living with, and after, cancer. I wasn’t asking, “why me?” I was worrying, “what next?”
My first remission came at a time when the long-term effects of cancer treatments weren’t widely known and survivorship clinics didn’t exist. Once I was considered cured, I left the care of my oncologist with little knowledge and nowhere to go. The HERO’S clinic at Yale Cancer Center was a light in the dark. Once they helped me understand my risks—and, more importantly, what I could do to manage them—I felt empowered. Dr. Nina Kadan-Lottick, Medical Director of the clinic, made herself available to me throughout my breast cancer experience. It was such a relief to finally have someone to turn to with my questions.
Yoga also provided a break in the clouds, helping to clear my mind and regain my strength. Slowly but surely I got back on track, eating right and exercising. Just five months after my mastectomy I rode my bike 25 miles in the 2007 CT Challenge, raising over $4,300 for the HERO’S clinic. Giving back to the cancer community did a lot for my emotional recovery. Sharing that sense of accomplishment with other survivors and supporters gave me the inspiration I needed to move forward again. For the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel so alone.
Music has always been a passion of mine. I had to put it aside because all of my energy was consumed with fighting cancer. Playing music again helps me feel normal, like I have the freedom of mind to focus my time on things that matter to me. Sometimes I still feel isolated from people my age who are free from the burdens of being a childhood cancer survivor. I take it day by day. Whenever I start to feel like the cards are stacked against me, I imagine that every positive step I take is one more point I score against cancer. With every new accomplishment, I'm still fighting. I will continue to fight for as long as it takes.