Rebecca’s College Cancer Diagnosis

A nurse led the way down the hall into a tiny room, but it wasn’t an examination room. It was the “bad news room,” with just enough space for a desk and four chairs…

Part 1: The Twinge

In August 2014, I was an energetic 19-year-old, excited to start my second year studying Environmental Science at Northeastern University. I had spent all summer happily working outdoors at my restoration ecology internship. My free time was focused on running and working out at the gym. Throughout the summer, I had kept up a group chat with two college friends filled with updates about our daily fitness progress- together, we were determined to join the triathlon team.

I was excited to end my suburban summer and move in to an on-campus apartment with my five best friends in Boston. Come September I moved into the new apartment, purchased a bike, rented my textbooks, and the new school year was off to a great start.

On my first day of classes, I took advantage of the university pool to squeeze in a swim workout. I was gasping for breath after only 20 minutes; my body absolutely exhausted. Swimming is tough and I had forgotten that it engages different muscle groups than running does. When I got home, I kept rolling my shoulders forward and backwards, working out a kink in my back. However, I couldn’t shake the pain. Over the course of the next few days, I was suddenly hyper-aware of the pressure in my back. I complained to my friends, who suggested that I pulled a muscle or pinched a nerve. As active, young college students, we had no reason to believe that it could ever be anything more serious.

Fast forward two weeks, and I’m panicking on a Skype call with my parents. University Health Care prescribed me muscle relaxers and physical therapy- the first made me fall asleep during my organic chemistry lectures and the second only enflamed my pain. Besides the pain in my back, my neck was oddly swollen and I had intense shooting pain down my left arm. Lying down was too painful, and I had taken up a habit of falling asleep in a sitting position.

My parents advised me to visit the ER, selling it to me as “one stop shopping” for my sudden compounding aches and pains. Reluctantly, I agreed to go to the next day. That night, I fell asleep crying, in too much pain to lie down. I hated to admit it, but deep down I knew something was very wrong. Over and over in my head I repeated to myself that it was only a pulled muscle, that everything was going to be all right, and that the doctors were going to help me. Exhausted, I fell asleep….

Part 2: The Diagnosis

It’s odd to think back on the most significant day of your life and realize that you woke up with no sense that it would ever be The Significant Day. I woke up in pain, just another bad morning after a long string of bad mornings.

The night before, my parents had convinced me that I needed to address the pain by going to the ER. My primary care doctor was back home in Illinois, and so I had to trust the ER doctors in Boston to diagnose my pain. I asked my roommate, Lauren, to come along with me. I tried to contain my nerves as I waited for her to finish her morning classes before we could make our way to the ER.

We walked up to the hospital entrance and I started sweating, second-guessing everything that I was feeling. What if the pain was all in my head? What if they told me that I just pulled a muscle, and the pain would go away by itself, and that it was silly for me to have come to the ER? By the time I made it to the front desk, my head was spinning. The receptionist asked me what the reason was for my visit, and I stammered out a disjointed sentence about the pain I’d been in for the past few weeks. Looking back, I definitely downplayed how much pain I was in. At that point, I was not ready to admit that something was really wrong.

I picked the wrong day to go to the ER. We walked into a waiting room packed with people, each looking more tired and anxious than the last. The time passed slowly, and I watched the patients cycle through, worrying about how much homework I would need to catch up on after missing that day’s lectures.

When I was finally admitted, Lauren and I were placed on a stretcher in the ER hallway. I remember laughing as we tried to fit two humans and two backpacks on that tiny bed. We sat on that stretcher for hours as preliminary tests turned into more intense scans. We became friendly with the nurses, who tried their hardest to make us as comfortable as possible throughout the day.

Eventually, Lauren and I were told that we were going to be seen by a doctor in a private room. A nurse led the way down the hall into a tiny room, but it wasn’t an examination room. It was the “bad news room,” with just enough space for a desk and four chairs. As I sat down to face two doctors, my heart sank. Before they had opened their mouths, I had a premonition of what was about to be said. I felt all the air drain from my lungs, as I suddenly understood the full weight of the situation.

I only remember small fragments of time in the bad news room. Everything happened both too slow and too fast at the same time. I don’t remember exactly how the doctor told me that there was a mass in my chest, but I do remember the utter despair that coursed through my veins in that moment. I remember clutching Lauren’s hand, nodding as my doctors continued to talk, struggling to absorb their words. I remember staring at the phone the doctor used to call my parents, unable to see through the tears streaming down my face. And I remember being completely overwhelmed, experiencing my world shatter in that moment.

Within hours, my parents were on a plane to Boston. It wasn’t until I was able to get a biopsy done the next day that I got my official diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Immediately, I started my first round of chemotherapy. I can’t remember what happened during that first week in much detail, because it all happened so fast. It turned out that I was a little more exciting than your run-of-the-mill Lymphoma. I also had a blood clot in my arm and fluid build up around my heart. I’ll save you from the disgusting picture of the bag filled with my heart fluid, but I spent a few days somewhat immobile as I watched the fluid literally draining through a tube coming out of my chest. Gross.

Spoiler alert: I survived! Hurray! As of 2017, I am now 2.5 years cancer free. It was a long road, but modern medicine does amazing wonders. I’m exciting to continue sharing my experience as a young adult who survived cancer.