A Christmas Relapse Story

by Jennifer AnandDecember 17, 2018View more posts from Jennifer Anand

Meet Jen Anand. Every week Jen will be providing a new tip or two on approaching life during and after cancer to help inspire others. Jen was diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2012, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments for 8 months. Jen is now a survivor and just celebrated her 5 year anniversary this year as cancer free!

Fall 2012. I had conquered cancer.  Graduated high school.  Turned 18 and got my driver’s license. And began college at the University of Akron.  I was bald, but I had a group of kids I was friends with. Life was improving since my initial diagnosis. I got up super early Black Friday…and went to get my 3-month PET and CT scans. It was a long day, as scan days usually are, but I was too thrilled at the idea that I was going to finish my first semester of college!  I’d always been a very academically driven person, and I had been scared that cancer wouldn’t allow me to go to college. But, it hadn’t stopped me and here I was!

I began college in mechanical engineering.  Our intro class final project was to make a mouse trap car that would compete in elimination rounds. I remember that night.  My car team and a few other friend’s team had built our own cardboard ramp in the basement kitchen of the Honors Complex.  We all so desperately wanted to have a working and winning car, so we weren’t going to take any chances about our vehicles not performing up to standards.  And then my phone rang.  I had been expecting a call from oncology with my scan results.  Typically, I got a call in a day or so, but I expected that the holidays had delayed their call.  But I was surprised, because it was after 7PM.  It was Dr. Peters, my oncology fellow. He began by saying, “I’m sure it’s nothing at all, but I’d like to get some more images,” a phrase I’d learn to dread. And in that moment- I knew.  In my heart of hearts, as I gazed into the kitchen and saw my classmates so carefree and cheerfully working away, I knew I was leaving them. I knew that despite what Dr. Peters was saying or thinking, I was very sick and the cancer was back.

It’s harder the second time, I think.  The first time you’re diagnosed, you’re all rah rah rah- ready to beat this, fight like a girl, etc. The second time, you know the reality of what it is going to take.  The awful medications. The hair loss and weight gain. The incessant nausea and puking. You know it’s going to take everything you have, and then some, to keep fighting.

The day after my last final I had those further images. And then a needle biopsy of my spleen. And then the visit on Christmas Eve morning 2012, 108 days after my last cancer treatment, to hear the words “you have relapsed Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.” I didn’t burst into tears or anything dramatic.  I quietly took the news I and my family had anticipated.

Christmas was “normal”. We did our traditions, and did our celebrations, knowing it may be our last Christmas together. The new year brought in a really hard-hitting chemo, in preparation for a bone marrow transplant (another story for another time).

Jen and her family at Christmas 2012

And never once did I cry. I couldn’t keep food down, and chewed mint gum almost round the clock. And then sometime during that January round of chemo, I checked out.  I didn’t talk and I didn’t eat. My mind felt numb.  Nothing I could think or do could shake me from the fact that I was going through hell, again. I existed physically, but in no other capacity.  This went on for probably close to two weeks. My family started to worry.  I distanced myself from the reality of my life, because frankly that reality really, really, sucked. My mind, expressions, and emotions were blanks and non-existent.

At my weekly Monday oncology visit, my dad told my dear nurse Ceci his worry on my state.  I listlessly lay on the bed, oblivious to the medical talks and tests swirling in the room around me. And then I saw the only thing that could pierce through the concrete shell I had built- a pet pal dog.  My dad always shares how my eyes finally looked alive for a second.  He saw that flicker of hope and ran out of the room and literally dragged the dog in.  And in that moment reality hit.  I held that pupper and released my incredible sadness into its soft fur. That was a turning point for me.  Ceci came and gave me a dose of Ativan- enough to encourage me to sleep. I slept for a few hours, and awoke to a Child Life Specialist Ceci had sent to see me.  Linda was a middle-aged, motherly woman.  She was also a stranger to me, and met me at literally the most vulnerable point in my life.  She didn’t know any of my past accomplishments, or talents, or anything.  She saw a girl who was at the very end of her rope.  She talked to me, encouraging me to fight, and reminding me of those who loved me. That day ended with a hug from my beloved nurse. And finally I cried.  As I sobbed into her shoulder, I knew this was a sucky situation, but I knew that no matter what I lost or how bad it became, I’d always, always have hope and people who loved me.

This Christmas, celebrate the people you are with. Celebrate where you are, and appreciate the memories you make.