Battling Cancer: Three students share journeys


By Pearl Sun, Walt Whitman High School

I sat face-to-face with three students and asked them questions about their cancer stories; I think it’s safe to say I was an emotional mess during each conversation. At times I smiled; at times I couldn’t look them in the eye; at times I wanted to cry. Cancer narratives often oversimplify the patient’s battle to the journey of a hero who defies one-in-a-million odds and overcomes the impossible. And while these three students are nothing short of fearless survivors, there’s so much more to tell, like their Chipotle cravings or their newfound expertise in hematology.

These are their stories. This is what it feels like to have cancer.

Junior Olivia Matthews

Hearing the diagnosis is like a slap to the face; it takes a moment to process, and the aftermath is perplexing and painful. When Matthews was diagnosed June 2016 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, even though she was sitting in an oncology clinic for cancer patients, the revelation was still jarring, she noted. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is an immune system cancer that compromises the body’s ability to fight infections.

“It was shocking and also scary,” Matthews said. “The first hour was very emotional because it was me and my parents coming to terms with what we had just heard. At this point there’s thoughts running through your mind like, what if it’s really bad?”

On the first day of treatment, doctors administer an entire dose of chemotherapy. The patient’s immune system flushes out the medicine for the next four to 10 days, which causes intense nausea.

“They gave me very powerful anti-nausea drugs the first time I had chemo,” Matthews said. “I actually spent three days in the hospital from getting admitted to the ER overnight because I just couldn’t stop being sick.”

Chemotherapy lowers both white and red blood cell counts, taking a harsh physical toll on the body. It left Matthews feeling physically drained. Prior to having cancer, she was a strong athlete and loved playing sports, but the chemotherapy rendered her unable to play tennis or swim.

“There was actually one point where I was so badly in need of a blood transfusion that when I was trying to make myself breakfast, I almost passed out trying to get a waffle from the toaster,” Matthews said. “So then I called my brother and made him get it for me.”

The strenuous mental battle with chemotherapy can be overlooked because chemotherapy has such a clear physical impact, but it exists: Matthews described her anticipatory dread before getting chemotherapy.

“You know in an hour you’re going to feel really poorly,” Matthews said. “So it’s hard to go in there and be like ‘alright, it’s fine’ because you know it’s not really fine.”

In the earlier stages of her treatment, Matthews was still getting used to her hair loss; she would sit in the waiting room wearing a scarf tied around her head, feeling sick and self-conscious. But one day, as she sat down and prepared herself for the next dose of chemotherapy, a little boy, who was also a cancer patient, walked past and cheered her up.

“I was just on my phone waiting to be called, and this little kid in a stroller comes in with his friends and he just looks at me and goes, ‘she’s pretty’,” Matthews recounted. “It was a little thing, but this was the first time I had gone there after I lost my hair, and I looked sick and here’s this little kid just freely voicing his opinion. It made me really re-think things.”

It was incredibly important to have friends and family by her side, Matthews said. When she was feeling tired and couldn’t move, they provided a welcome distraction.

“I was pretty much on the couch every day, but [my friends] Jonah and Hope were really helpful,” Matthews said. “They would get me whatever I needed, and if I was having trouble with anything, they would talk me through it.”

It was hard for junior Hope Hilsenrath to watch her close friend going through cancer, but she tried to be there for Matthews, she said.

“It was hard on her body, but she is the strongest person I know,” Hilsenrath said. “She never even complained.”

Along with growing closer to her friends and family, Matthews has also learned not to make unwarranted assumptions or judge others. At the beginning of the school year, people around Matthews didn’t know she had cancer, and they would ask her why she wasn’t around.

So she made it very clear to her friends to treat her the same way, she said, because enough had changed already.

“You never know what people have going on, so don’t assume anything,” Matthews said. “Even though people who go through this experience might look or seem different, they’re still the same person.”

And she’s still keeping her head up. Matthews finished chemotherapy in September and completed radiation therapy in early November.

“Yes, you’re going through an awful situation that no one should have to go through, but there are upsides to it,” Matthews said. “You meet amazing people and you come out with a better perspective. If you keep that in mind while going through it, it makes it easier.”

Read the rest of the story here.