An LCCC student’s story of his struggle with cancer
The flashbacks come frequently for Jake, sometimes very vividly. He has a composed and relaxed demeanor, contradicting the array of emotions that accompanies his recounting of his struggle with cancer.
The Lorain County Community College student who is currently enrolled in the Cleveland State University Partnership program, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma when he was in 8th-grade. Jake, who does not wish to reveal his last name underwent treatment cycles of chemotherapy and radiation and was finally given a cancer-free diagnosis on Jan. 28, 2008. Regardless of being free of the looming shadow of the disease, the memory still haunts him and has become an integral part of who he has become today.
“I remember I was watching a Cavs versus Lakers game,” Jake recounted, “My parents had gone out and when they came back I had a tennis ball-sized lump on the side of my neck. That happened in two hours. We went to the hospital and they did a biopsy.” Not more than 18 hours later, Jake was sitting in University Hospital’s main campus emergency room with a diagnosis of Stage 2a Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I found out when I woke up. Before that I had been fasting for around 55 hours because of all the labs, surgeries, and biopsies that I had to get done,” Jake recollected. “I was very exhausted and I remember my mom told me that they found that it was cancer. I wasn’t shocked, or feeling any emotions. I felt very calm. ”
Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that starts in the white blood cells and targets mainly lymph nodes, bone marrow, and blood cells, as well as other parts of the lymphatic system. According to the National Cancer Institute, there were 9,050 cases diagnosed in 2015 alone.
Jake’s easy going demeanor could possibly be attributed to the somewhat foreshadowing signs that he had encountered months prior to being diagnosed. “I remember I was watching ESPN and they had the My Wish series on, which is the Make a Wish series that grants kids with life threatening illnesses anything they want and they’ll make it happen. I remember just feeling like I would end up having that experience. I started getting dreams about being sick with something, and I had thoughts throughout the day. Ironically, it happened a couple of months later.”
Despite these premonitions, Jake was an otherwise healthy and capable young man. “Looking back at it now sometimes it doesn’t feel real, and I really have to think about what happened to make it real again,” he admitted. The American Cancer Society states that when in it’s second stage, Hodgkin lymphoma has about a 90% survival rate. “I mean, it’s good if you’re betting,” Jake said with a slight laugh.
Although the survival rate of Hodgkin lymphoma is a promising statistic to quote, that doesn’t erase the reality of the situation. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, it was predicted that there would be 20,940 deaths from lymphoma, 1,150 from Hodgkin lymphoma and 19,790 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The struggle with cancer is one that takes a great toll on any individual, mentally and physically, but someone the age of Jake when he was diagnosed, the impact was certainly significant. “My entire eighth grade year is a blur,” said Jake. He was an only child, so his support system manifested mostly in his parents. The accommodations made by the school played a significant role in his recovery, but Jake cited his peers as the most important contributors to his mindset through his struggle. “I appreciate them a lot for what they did and how they treated me. They treated me like I was a normal kid,” he said. “It’s tough being the only kid to walk in without hair. You know you’re not really normal.”
Being diagnosed with cancer did not stop Jake’s ambitions or desires. If anything, it fueled them. Regardless of the long days spent at the hospital, Jake kept up with his schoolwork and was very involved in organizations and activities. “I continued playing basketball,” his expression was one of great pride. “It was a good gateway to get out and feel normal.”
He recalled one of the most mentally and physically challenging aspects of the disease was going through the treatment for it. During the week he underwent chemotherapy, spending spend several long days in the hospital for treatment. “They gave this one chemo drug and one of the side effects is that it gives you fevers. After I would get home at 7 p.m. I’d end up having to go back just two hours later because I’d spike a fever. We’d be there until 4 a.m.” he said.
During all these visits to the hospital Jake encountered Jeff Detori, a Child Life Specialist, who helped to shape his dreams and visions of the future. “I had a favorite doctor that would come in,” he said. “He wasn’t the scary doctor. There are a bunch of these guys and they’re all giving you looks and they’re not the most sociable people; they’d only give you straight facts. But then this guy would come in. He’d talk about sports or just stuff to get your mind off of it. He gave me ways to cope.”
It was this that inspired Jake to test out the field of psychology and ultimately choose to attend the LCCC and CSU partnership program with a major of Psychology. His dream is to be a Pediatric Psychologist. He intends to be there for patients of hospitals undergoing cancer, just as his doctor was a listening ear for him. “It’s great because I kind of know what they’re thinking. If you haven’t gone through it, it’s hard to know what exactly is going on in their minds. I think it’ll be easier for me to get through to them,” he explained.
It was taking the perspective of truly accepting his diagnosis that allowed Jake to continue to live life to the fullest during the course of his treatment. It was his firm faith and ability to seek a silver lining that helped him through. He prayed throughout the duration of his treatment and kept in mind that each day was a genuine blessing and strongly believed that there was meaning behind the diagnosis with the notion that something good was going to come of it. “God blessed me so much by putting me through that little struggle, and it’s comforting to know that anything that comes up next in my life, I know my strengths and how far my mind can go to push through something,” he said.
It is not an easy feat to call a diagnosis of cancer a blessing, let alone be able to be grateful to have gone through the challenging struggle it entails. Jake’s positive mindset has persevered through the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he has come out a stronger and more willful person because of it. “It’s hard to explain, but it made me who I am today. I would never take away that experience from me if I could have a ‘do over.’”
Just as every individual prognosis varies, so do the ways that people learn to cope and bring themselves through. Jake acknowledges that everyone’s experience with the disease is different. “You kind of pick and choose your fate from your initial thoughts, but everyone I’ve talked to that had cancer has a different mindset,” he said. “You realize very quickly it’s not personal and not in your control, and being more positive is the best medicine you can have.”