Realities of an AYA

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In the beginning of my 2023 Fall semester, I was a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey, majoring in Social Work with a double minor in Criminal Justice and Substance Use. Along with my academics, I had an internship twice a week at the County Prosecutor’s Office in the Victim Witness Unit and was the Captain of Ramapo’s Cheerleading Team. As you can most likely tell, I had a very busy schedule with class, my part-time gymnastics coaching job, and cheer practice. Growing up, I was a dedicated athlete, as I did competitive gymnastics and trained multiple times a week. This made my transition to my busy college life almost seamless since my focus has always been academics and athletics. I never was one to party or partake in smoking and drinking. I was always healthy and never sick. But, being an athlete comes with injuries, and I have had my share of them. 

In the Fall of 2023, around November, I started to have pain in my left shoulder. At first I brushed it off, just thinking it was a pulled muscle from cheerleading. The pain increased throughout the coming weeks and I went to see an orthopedic surgeon. I had x-rays, was told it was just inflammation, and given some pain meds to go home with. Then, the pain steadily got worse. Along with the immense pain, I realized my breathing was off. Walking to class and performing the cheer routine was leaving me feeling out of breath, which was not normal. Again, I brushed it off, blaming it on the cold weather and being “out of shape.” Mid February my symptoms became debilitating and I didn’t sleep for four days straight due to the pain. I was sent home from class and my internship because both my professor and supervisor were concerned about the amount of pain I was experiencing.

On the evening of February 22, I was admitted into the pediatric ED during a shift change at Valley Hospital. I was greeted by the ED nurses and staff, later meeting the ED doctor. I expressed my concerns, stating the lists of medications I have tried and that nothing was working. The doctor said that medication and referring me to an orthopedist was all that could be done regarding my shoulder pain. However, he was concerned by my trouble breathing and said his gut was telling him to run additional tests. He told me not to worry. I then had IV blood work and an EKG. Little did I know, that same IV tube would also be the one my first chemotherapy treatment would go through 72 hours later. 

When my blood work and EKG came back, the doctor said I would need a CT scan. At this point, he saw that I was getting nervous. He told me that it could potentially be a blood clot in my lungs or nothing, but either way, it’s nothing I should worry about. I was pretty much over my whole hospital stay after getting my CT scan, but needed to wait for the results. It was about 10:00pm when the doctor gave us the news that there was a large mass in my lungs and heart and that I would need to be admitted. Now, everyone was panicking. I couldn’t even speak. I had so many thoughts and questions, but no answers.

The next day was filled with testing. Trying  to figure out what my mass was. That day, 1.5 pounds of fluid was drained from my lungs and a biopsy was done on my mass. Around 4:00pm, my hematologist called me for the first time to tell me my diagnosis of Non Hodgkin’s Primary Mediastinal (Thymic) Large B-cell Lymphoma. My mass was pushing on my heart and lungs. It was 7 inches x 5 inches x 4 inches. This was a shock to everyone; a young 22 year old athletic, healthy girl, was now a cancer patient. My oncology team took quick actions due to how large my mass was and only three days after my initial ED visit I was receiving my first dose of chemotherapy.

Since then, I have received five additional treatments. My treatments are 24 hour chemotherapy infusions over the span of five days. I have a pump and a bag that I like to call my “chemo clutch” so I am able to complete my treatments at home. As I am writing this, I am about to receive my sixth and final treatment in just three days. Treatment for my cancer has not been an easy journey. My chemotherapy increases or decreases according to my blood count levels making each chemotherapy week different. Some weeks are harder than others. Physically, I have been lucky in that my mass is shrinking and my chemo symptoms have been manageable. I have my good and bad days, but overall it could be way worse and I am happy with how things are going. Mentally, having cancer has taken its toll. Being so young, I have felt very alone in this process. I am surrounded by older individuals during my treatment days and no one that looks like me. The comments of,“You’re young! You got this” or “You’re too young to be at the cancer center” have all made a huge impact on how being a young cancer patient is so damn hard and isolating. 

In the weeks after my first treatment, these comments had such a negative impact on my mental health. I felt supported, but so alone. I had the need to feel fine because I was so young and apparently so capable of beating this life sucking disease. After having my few days in the dumps, I quickly realized that my cancer isn’t going away anytime soon and neither are these comments. I had to change my thought process or else I wouldn’t make it. Since then, I now go into the cancer center with a smile, supporting others when they are having bad days, letting them know that they too can make it through just like I am. Being a social worker, I naturally want to advocate for change and support others. I want to advocate for the young patients like myself who feel they are alone in this process because they are not. Young patients like myself have to deal with many outside factors such as the “young comments,” completing school, fighting for a social life, concerns about fertility after treatment, relationships, body image, and so much more.

During my fight against cancer, I attended virtual classes and completed my last semester of college from home. Although this is not how I wanted to spend my last semester, I am grateful that I was able to complete it on time. I finished my final semester with a 4.0 GPA, making the dean’s list and being able to graduate on time with my friends and peers. Graduation is something that is very important to me since I was unable to have a high school graduation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I made it clear that I wanted to be there in person for my graduation despite my cancer diagnosis. My hematologist knew how important this was for me and was able to make adjustments to my chemotherapy treatment so my cell counts were good enough to attend in person graduation festivities. I was also able to attend Ramapo’s arching ceremony in person with my “chemo clutch” and the following week, I was able to attend the commencement ceremony at Prudential Center. Along with graduating college, I applied and was accepted to graduate school. In the fall I will be attending Seton Hall University where I will be studying forensic social work in the Advanced Standing Masters program!

By: Abigail Fieldhouse