In 1982, I was a twenty-one year old newly married graduate student, taking a full load of classes and working full time. Feeling tired was par for the course- my "new normal." During an annual physical exam, my doctor felt a lump in my neck and told me that if I found another one, or if this one didn't disappear in a few weeks, I should come back. The swelling did NOT go away. I returned to my physician, and this time he recommended a biopsy to determine why the lymph node was swollen. He said that it was probably nothing, just my body fighting an infection or possibly "cat scratch fever." He never mentioned the "C" word. My biopsy was on March 30th. Two days later, on April Fools' Day, I was told that I had Hodgkin's Disease. NOT funny.
I had no idea what Hodgkin's Disease was. I was young, naive and living in the pre-internet era. I thought everything could be cured with a shot of penicillin in the buttocks. NOT! After a few days of blood work, imaging and testing, I had a staging laparotomy to determine the extent of the disease. The procedure included a splenectomy. An incision was made from my breast bone to my pubic bone, enabling my surgeon to see if the disease had spread elsewhere in my body. The result was that I was labeled "HD 2A," meaning that Hodgkin's was found in two areas- my neck and chest. "A" meant that I was without symptoms. After weeks of healing from the surgery, I began a summer's worth of radiation therapy. I remember being strapped down to the table so that I wouldn't move, and, somewhere, the smell of cut grass. To this day I don't like the smell of cut grass- it reminds me of cancer cells being burned by radiation.
During this time I postponed my schooling so that I could take time to heal. My body did heal, eventually, but my marriage was not strong enough to survive. I knew when I was driving myself to radiation treatments that he was not the right one for me. I learned a tough lesson through my diagnosis and treatment. You find out what your friends are made of.
After a two semester hiatus, I returned to school, completed my studies, and received a Master's degree in Applied Behavioral Sciences from John Hopkins University. I also got a whole new understanding of life.
It's now 2017, thirty four years later, and I'm alive, happy, remarried to a wonderful man and enjoying my life to the fullest. I know that treatment in 1983 was very different than what is today. Because of the kind of radiation I received, my body has a higher than normal chance of developing secondary cancers, including breast cancer, as well as heart and lung disease. I've been lucky. I was always vigilant about doing breast exams, and had both mammograms and breast MRI's, alternating every six months. In August, 2014, I was diagnosed with breast cancer- DCIS. It showed up on my second MRI. I had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction in June, 2015. No additional treatment was necessary because we caught it early, and it did not migrate to the lymph nodes.
Other than breast cancer, I've had my share of skin cancers, including both basal and squamous cell cancer, all in the radiation field. I am diligent about doctors appointments and vaccinations. I know that without a spleen, I am more susceptible.
After being diagnosed and cured, I will always be known as a blood cancer survivor. Doctors treat me differently after I tell them I'm a survivor. They are watching me carefully. Sometimes I can't help but think that if the disease didn't kill me, the after effects of the treatment might, even many decades later. I try to be proactive with my body. I exercise, eat healthy, try to reduce stress, and get a good night's sleep.
As a survivor, I feel it's important to "give back." In 2000, I got involved with the "Leukemia and Lymphoma Society" and have been very active with their "Team in Training (TNT) program. As a participant, I've completed many "century" bike rides (100 miles in a day), two half marathons, several 10K's, and, most recently, the "Avon 39" in both Washington, DC and New York City- all while fundraising and bringing awareness to blood cancer.
I am happy, healthy, and enjoying retirement in Denver with my husband and "fur baby."
Sharon Robinson DelBusso