At 24 years old, Nina Luker’s life was turned upside down when she learned she had stage IV diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) – just three days before New York City went on lockdown due to the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic. “It was March 11 and I was sitting alone in my apartment as I saw my phone begin to ring. I answered in a cheerful and hopeful tone, never expecting that my life would be turned upside down,” Luker recalls.
She vividly remembers her doctor’s emotionless and somber tone as he said “hi” from the other side of the phone. “He took a long pause and then cut right to the chase, and all I can recall were the words, ‘lymphoma, a blood cancer.’ ” In complete shock and disbelief from the news she had just received, all Nina was able to think was “NO.” “I felt helpless, alone, scared, and overwhelmed. How could a 24-year-old, health-conscious, former Division I athlete have cancer? It didn’t make sense, it couldn’t be right,” says Luker.
DLBCL is an aggressive or fast-growing type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). DLBCL affects B-lymphocytes, which are one type of white blood cell. These lymphocytes make antibodies to fight infections and are an essential part of the lymphatic system. DLBCL is the most common type of NHL worldwide, accounting for 18,000 newly diagnosed cases in the United States each year.
“I felt helpless, alone, scared, and overwhelmed. How could a 24-year-old, health-conscious, former Division I athlete have cancer? It didn’t make sense, it couldn’t be right.”
Presently, the most widely used treatment for DLBCL is the combination therapy known as R-CHOP (rituximab [Rituxan], cyclophosphamide [Cytoxan], and prednisone). The R-CHOP regimen is usually given in 21-day cycles (once every 21 days) for an average of six cycles. However, the length and number of cycles given can vary based on the patient’s disease and health status.
Luker’s doctor suggested the standard treatment regimen of R-CHOP and that she begin immediately. As a young woman, Luker had various concerns about the possible effects chemotherapy could have on her body, but due to the necessity of beginning treatment, she was unable to freeze her eggs or take some of the suggested precautions before treatment. Just one short week after receiving her diagnosis, Luker had moved back to her parents’ home in Pennsylvania and began chemotherapy. “It was a grueling process, and some days it took everything out of me,” says Luker. However, she approached chemo the same way she tackles life – with a “glass half full attitude” and decided to face it head on. “When I was diagnosed, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t let cancer control my happiness – a promise which ended up being one of the best things I could’ve ever done,” Luker exclaims.
During her time in treatment, Luker began to enjoy the simpler things and began to gain a new appreciation for life. “I realized that I had a choice – to wake up each day and feel victimized, or live life with joy,” says Luker. Undergoing treatment and in lockdown due to COVID-19, Luker found joy through cooking, vegetable gardening, daily meditation, therapy, outdoor hikes, exercise, and connecting with friends. While each round of chemo seemed to take a toll on Nina, she refused to lose her smile and put trust into her body, knowing that she was doing everything in her power to counteract this disease. “I ate whole, nutritious foods, took out sugar, eliminated alcohol, and used my passion for cooking as a way to stay healthy,” Luker adds. Her new health conscious lifestyle even inspired her to return to school and receive her health coaching certification.
“When I was diagnosed, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t let cancer control my happiness – a promise which ended up being one of the best things I could’ve ever done.”
Luker also turned to the social media platform, TikTok, as a way to cope with her diagnosis and share her experience with others. TikTok is an app for making and sharing short videos online. “It provided me with a supportive and encouraging community and also gave me an outlet to share my story in a raw and honest manner” Luker states. Luker shared the intimate details of her cancer journey through her including videos of her shaving her head, dancing during chemotherapy treatments, and trying on new wigs. Her videos became a social media sensation overnight, gaining her more than 150,000 followers.
Leading up to Luker’s final scan, she began to experience symptoms very similar to the ones that she had prior to her diagnosis. “I was terrified that I wasn’t in the clear yet and had convinced myself that chemo didn’t work,” says Luker. On July 13, five months after receiving her initial diagnosis, Luker was declared in remission. “This was the single most incredible day – it worked. I did it!” Nina joyfully says.
“I feel like lymphoma gave me the tools and confidence to conquer just about anything that life throws my way.”
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Pulse is a publication of the Lymphoma Research Foundation, providing the latest updates on the Foundation and its focus on lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) research, awareness and education. Read more >