I’ve never been one to completely freak out over something like a cough, so when I started experiencing one that seemed especially persistent, I figured it was just the start of your typical sickness. It was late fall in 2017 and I was traveling a lot at the time. Everyone around me was getting sick, so I figured it had finally caught up to me, too.
My boyfriend, Jason, and I had also just returned from a trip to Europe, so I thought maybe I hadn’t totally caught up on sleep. Once winter rolled around, getting through work and the holidays consumed most of my time, so I ignored the fact that my cough was still present at the start of the new year. I felt fine, my energy was great, and I didn’t think too much about it. My body would bounce back.
But the cough didn’t go away. By late February in 2018, the cough had become extremely persistent and felt so much worse. I was coughing all the time—whenever I laughed or had a long conversation. I tried to avoid conference calls at work because once I started to talk, I couldn’t stop coughing. Then, I started losing weight without trying at all. I was practically swimming in my go-to jeans and I eventually dropped an entire clothing size.
About halfway through March, I decided to see my doctor. I thought I was dealing with a nasty case of bronchitis at that point, and so did the physician’s assistant who saw me. I had some blood work done and was given antibiotics, but the test came back showing some slight abnormalities, so my doctor suggested getting a chest X-ray. It was a Friday afternoon and kind of slow at work, so I went right into the imaging center to get it done.
Then, I received a diagnosis
The X-ray revealed a large mass in my chest area, and that’s when I started to get really worried. One CT scan later and my worst fear was confirmed: This was not bronchitis. It was a 9-centimeter tumor pressing against my right lung.
Within a week and a half, my doctors confirmed I had a lymphoma mass in the center of my chest. I remember sitting in the office with my dad and Jason, and saying “How are you even telling me this right now?” I was convinced I had bronchitis, maybe walking pneumonia. How am I sitting here, two weeks later, having a conversation about chemotherapy with an oncologist?
I was diagnosed with primary mediastinal large B cell lymphoma (PMLBC), a very rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Luckily, it had not spread.
Everything happened so fast—and chemotherapy ruled my life
In early April, I started my first round of chemotherapy. I decided to just preemptively shave my hair to lessen the pain of it all, because I couldn’t stand the thought of watching it all fall out. My friend and I did a photoshoot to help me feel more empowered, and it really did help.
I had just turned 37 and was spending 5 days every two weeks in the hospital for intensive 24/7 treatment, so it’s not exactly surprising that I started to feel so alone. Even though I had an amazing support system, especially my boyfriend, it was my battle at the end of the day—and nobody could save me.
When you face a life or death situation like cancer, it’s hard not to feel lost in it. So I started a blog that was more for myself at the beginning. (I decided early on to call my cancer Ugly Linda—I had to find humor in it.) But people who had the same type of cancer or had a friend going through it started reaching out. I was also able to find a support group online that had about 1,500 people on it—everyone from survivors to family members. Being a part of a community like that was so reassuring, just to ask questions like ‘Is this a reaction to chemo?’ or ‘Is that normal?’ I started to feel more hopeful, even though everything still felt so hard.
By the time my treatment was over in early August, every hair on my body had vanished. I was hospitalized beyond the chemo for complications and received multiple blood transfusions.
Miraculously, the tumor was basically gone. What was left was considered a tiny bit of residual scar tissue. The baffling part? My doctors still aren’t sure what caused my cancer. It’s like winning the worst lottery in the world. There is no genetic risk for this particular type of lymphoma, with only 300 to 400 cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. I may have been exposed to some sort of chemical or pesticides at some point, but we just really aren’t sure.
I had bad days for sure. My white blood cell count was so low, and I practically had no immune system. But I think it was the first time in my life since I was 13 years-old that I wasn’t working—and there was some freedom in that.
It was life-changing in a positive way. My boyfriend and I became closer. My mother had passed away from cancer exactly five years to the day before my last round of chemo. She lost her battle, but I knew I was winning mine. There was so much pain in that, but my family came together to help me through it.
I’m now in remission and feeling great. I go in for a PET scan every three months and do regular blood work. If I stay this way for two years, then I’ll be considered “cured.”
Surviving cancer has made me appreciate my body
The side effects of my treatment have made me redefine beauty. Before chemo, I had long hair and I loved it. I don’t anymore, but my hair is slowly coming in, thick and curly and totally different. Now, to me, beauty means strength. I’m so grateful to my body. I used to be so hard on it, but I feel so different about what it’s capable of now.
That’s why you should never wait to see a doctor if something feels off, no matter how small it might seem. I know many people around me were shocked when I was diagnosed, but they have told me it’s made them go in for physicals, start eating better, and seek care when something didn’t feel right. Your health is the number one thing you have in this world—and if you don’t have it under control, you don’t have anything.
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