Cherylinn, Mantle Cell Lymphoma Survivor
I survived cancer not once, not twice, but three times.
I was first diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) – a typically aggressive, rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I was diagnosed with it in 2005, on my 50th birthday. At the time, it was not common for women in the U.S. to be diagnosed with this type of cancer.
By the time I was diagnosed with Stage IV MCL, cancer had spread throughout my body and lodged in my bones as well – yet I had no symptoms whatsoever. It was a freak accident while I was dog-sitting that helped me discover my lymphoma. I was watching a German Shepherd, and he had attacked me, ripping open my head, biting my nose, and under my eye. It might not sound like it, but by sending me to the hospital when he did, this dog turned out to be my guardian angel.
In the process of treating my bite wounds, it became clear that I was long overdue for a physical exam and mammogram. It was then that I was diagnosed with MCL – another year or two down the road, and I would have found out too late to do anything about it. Even so, my oncologist had told me that I was terminal; this did not make sense to me. I felt fine and looked healthy. My sister had died of breast cancer, so I thought I knew what “terminal” looked like.
I was devastated by my diagnosis and immediately started asking God, “How am I – newly divorced and with two of three children still living at home – going to deal with what the doctors deemed was a death sentence?”
After another barrage of tests, I asked the doctor how long I had the following week, as I needed to start making immediate preparations. His response mirrored my initial reaction. The person on my chart looked terrible, but the one sitting in front of him did not look like the same person. So, he asked me if I wanted to fight. As a strong woman, I think I had known that this would not happen without a fight. My doctor suggested an aggressive approach; where most doctors treat bone cancer separate from other cancers, he wanted to treat everything simultaneously to keep it from spreading further – to my brain. Much to my surprise, I was already in remission by the second or third round of chemotherapy.
I attribute this in part to keeping a cheerful outlook throughout my journey. My inspiration came from my sister and her battle with the disease. As I was undergoing chemo, instead of focusing on myself and my worries, I would walk around with my IV and ask the nurses if anyone had issues with treatment that day. I found it therapeutic to listen to other people’s stories and then share mine in a way related to their own. Staying positive helped me get through it and talking to others was a way to spread that positivity so that others might see it as a minor setback, not the end of the world.
In remission and ready to go back to work, I found out that I no longer had a job which turned out to be another blessing in disguise. I discovered City of Hope at a job fair. While working a temporary job there, a doctor Dr. John Zia, took an interest in my cancer history and suggested something that no one had mentioned before: a stem cell transplant.
Though the process was unpleasant, to say the least, and they did not sugarcoat this fact, I decided to go through with it. The pain was horrendous, and the side effects, like rashes and cold sores, were unpleasant. Family visits were not permitted as you must receive the equivalent of five times the usual dosage of chemotherapy, rendering your body with little to no immune system, and being exposed to the slightest germ could kill you.
Though it was a tough road, this further treatment helped me beat the odds. I was initially given three to five years to live because of the aggressiveness of cancer 16 years later, and I am still here.
In 2010, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer (unrelated to my MCL). While it was a more leisurely journey than the one, I had with lymphoma, it was still cancer – but I luckily survived once again.
Three years later, in 2013, I experienced yet another fluke related to my health. I was on an Alaskan cruise when my right hand suddenly went numb. I assumed it was from the cold, but I went to the doctor, who traced it back to my neck upon my return. A scan revealed that my spine was degenerating, and if I didn’t have surgery, I would lose all feeling in my right hand. I had neck surgery and two titanium rods placed in my neck. I currently have all feeling back except for my right thumb.
This experience also reminded me that I was a year overdue for another mammogram. The test showed a spot on my right breast, and a biopsy revealed that my mantle cell lymphoma had relapsed – something they had never seen recur in the breast. I just started a new drug, ibrutinib, which is working but with sides effect.
I learned many lessons throughout my journey that I think can be helpful to others. The first is to make your health a priority. Don’t put off regularly scheduled check-ups or wait too long to see a doctor about an unusual symptom that doesn’t go away. Make sure to follow through with all recommended health screenings – especially those recommended based on your age, gender, cultural background, family history, and other such factors. These checkups are essential especially since some illnesses can present as asymptomatic, or like me, it could be indicative of a more significant issue. Take the time to talk to your doctor, and don’t be afraid to let them know precisely how you’re feeling.
Another key lesson I learned is to not settle for the first opinion. I was lucky enough to cross paths with a doctor who suggested further treatment for me – but we can’t always rely on such luck. Be your own self-advocate and seek out second opinions, and you might discover options you never knew you had – don’t give up no matter how severe your diagnosis is.
Over the years, I have overcome many obstacles – surviving cancer three times, losing my soulmate in 2018, and now, COVID. However, throughout it all, I was able to not only beat the odds with my health, but I was able to go on and earn two MBAs, a master’s in human resources, and a master’s in psychology. It took a while to achieve because I had to leave school leave when going through chemotherapy, but I did it by never giving up. At speaking engagements, people in similar situations will often ask, “Why bother?” It’s because no matter what your case, you should never give up on your future.