Hodgkin lymphoma (HL)
The year 2012 started as one of the best years I could remember. After an arduous effort, I successfully passed step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) which allowed me passage into my third-year medical school clinical rotations. After a wonderful third-year experience, I transitioned to my fourth year and was cruising toward the finish line of my dream to become a physician. Not only that, but after completely overhauling my nutrition and exercise habits, I had lost 100 pounds and was enjoying a newfound freedom that is beyond words. I was fitter than I had ever been and was using that fitness to explore the joys of endurance athletics. I had already run one 26.2-mile marathon and was training for my second. Life was good.
Then disaster struck. The trouble actually started earlier in that year with sudden coughing spells during my workouts that doctors attributed to sinus or upper respiratory infections which I had suffered from as a child. They also considered that I may be developing asthma. However, something about this wasn’t right. As a child, I would get sick maybe once or twice a year with the changing of seasons, but now this issue was recurring over and over again for months. I wasn’t insured at the time, so I went to urgent care centers for help when things got bad. Despite my insistence that it wasn’t asthma, and despite my pleas for imaging studies like an X-ray, my requests went unanswered. Antibiotics and inhalers helped for a brief time, but a week or two after each round of treatment, I was back at the doctor. Every time I went for help, I saw a different doctor who thought my requests were uninformed and unnecessary. No one was listening to me.
By Thanksgiving, I was in dire straits. I couldn’t walk across a room without getting short of breath. I couldn’t lay flat on a bed to sleep without feeling like an elephant was sitting on my chest. This was NOT asthma. Something was seriously wrong, and I KNEW it.
I was fortunate enough for a chance to be seen by a lung specialist as a favor to a friend who was working with him. This doctor immediately got my chest X-ray, and what happened next was like a high-speed nightmare.
The X-ray found a football-sized mass in my chest, crushing my heart and lungs. I was almost immediately admitted to the hospital where I spent 28 of the next 40 days. During this time, I had emergency surgery to remove 1.5 liters of fluid from my pericardium, the sack surrounding the heart. I had open chest surgery to diagnose the tumor and a thoracostomy which I had to do AWAKE because the surgeons thought the weight of the tumor would kill me in my sleep. Two clots were found in my deep veins, one in my leg and one in my neck which required medication and hospitalization, but I finally had a diagnosis ― Hodgkin lymphoma (HL). Six months of ABVD chemotherapy and three weeks of daily radiation therapy to my chest later, I was cured. On November 4, 2013, I was declared cancer-free.
However, cancer wasn’t done with me yet. The treatments had significantly weakened my bones which led to me breaking my ankle in three places a few months after. During chemo and radiation, I gained all the weight back that I had lost due to many factors but mainly the high-dose steroids I was given as a part of each treatment. If this wasn’t bad enough, through a series of TRULY unfortunate events, my USMLE scores expired due to my time out from my illness, and I wasn’t able to finish the last 16 weeks of my fourth year of medical training. If I was to continue, I would have to start medical school from the very beginning.
On November 4, 2023, I celebrated 10 years as a cancer survivor. My story is filled with trial and tragedy, but more importantly, it is filled with triumph. I just finished my third year of medical school for the second time. Not only did I start medical school from the beginning, THIS time I have a 4.0 GPA and a whole new outlook on the profession. I am once again in control of my fitness, have successfully finished my second 26.2-mile marathon, and I’m currently training for an Ironman 70.3 Triathlon.
I am grateful for my health and for all the lessons this experience has taught me. I look forward to using my experience to be of service to all people, those afflicted with this disease and those who are not.