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A Path I Didn't Expect

July 11, 2011
Shaunna Dunder - Lifestyles Editor ( , Times Leader

Five years ago, I said goodbye to The Times Leader. Although I really loved my job at the TL, I'd recently been offered my first job as a graphic designer, and I had big plans to get started on my next exciting challenge.

What I didn't plan on was, the day before I started my new job, finding a disturbingly large, swollen lymph node in my collarbone. Doctor appointments, CAT scans, X-rays and biopsies followed, and then the verdict was in: Stage III Hodgkins Lymphoma. On Sept. 18, 2006, I started chemotherapy. I remember that day vividly because I turned 32. My nurses Cami and Julie brought me a cinnamon roll with a candle in the middle and sang "Happy Birthday" to me.

Twelve chemos and six months later, I finished treatment. PET scans showed the chemo had worked and successfully flushed out the cancer. Me, my family, even my doctor-we all thought that was the last of it. I'd heard so many numbers during this stretch: 85 percent to 90 percent cure rate for Hodgkins Lymphoma. Surely I was on the favorable side of that large percentage. My family even threw me a huge party-I had beaten cancer!

But it returned seven months later with a vengeance. It overtook my chest and abdomen; I had a 10 centimeter cluster of enlarged lymph nodes along the right side of my chest. In fact, my doctor informed me I actually had MORE cancer in my body with this relapse than I had when I was initially diagnosed.

What followed was perhaps the most challenging thing I've ever faced in my life. My doctor referred me to Ruby Memorial Hospital at WVU in Morgantown where I had a stem cell transplant. The transplant itself was the easy part-the preparation, however, was brutal: chemo to put me in remission; more chemo to prepare my body for stem cell harvesting; stem cell harvesting; the "big" chemo, the one I called "killer chemo" that essentially wiped out my entire immune system; and finally the transplant of the stem cells to regrow a new, and hopefully cancer-free, immune system. I had my transplant on Feb. 5, 2008. The doctor released me on March 3, 2008.

And I made the mistake of thinking the worst was behind me. I had no symptoms when a routine PET scan eight months later showed an area of cancer localized to two lymph nodes in my abdomen. This news stunned me to my very core-I was actually numb with shock. After everything I'd just gone through? The prep and recovery period from October 2007 up and through May 2008 had all been for naught? What else did I have to do to rid my body of cancer once and for all?

Radiation treatments followed from December 2008 to January 2009, and guess what? So did another relapse in March 2009. This time the cancer was localized in my neck. Upon the advice of my doctor, I had eight more doses of chemotherapy, finishing up in June 2009.

So in the period between September 2006 and June 2009, I:

-- had an initial diagnosis of Hodgkins Lymphoma followed by three relapses for a total of four different treatment regimens;

-- received a combination of twelve different toxic chemo drugs;

-- fried my body from the inside out with 25 radiation treatments.

Not exactly the path I'd planned on taking.

During my treatments, I tried to practice "normal" daily activities. I worked full-time, just taking off for doctor visits, chemo or radiation, and then I was back at it the next day or in some cases the same day. I tried to keep up with my exercise habits, although having a PICC line in my arm made that somewhat difficult. But this was really all I had, so I poured myself into it. Anything to make me feel like I was just like everyone else even though my life revolved around continuing medical care.

But two things in particular got me through. The biggest? Prayer. And lots of it. I've always been quite strong in my faith, but during this time, I felt closer to God than I ever have in my entire life. Asking God to help me carry the burden truly lightened my load.

Positivity was the second thing to get me through this period. Maybe I had a serious disease that could kill me, but never once did it cross my mind that I would die. I knew without any shred of doubt that I would beat it. Mentally it wasn't always sunshine and rainbows-I especially had a rough time after my second relapse. But keeping a good attitude is half the battle. In fact, I openly joked and made light-hearted observations about my condition. My family teased me about my "chemo brain." And when I lost all my hair, I asked my mom to take photos of my bald head every week so I could document the progress of my hair regrowth. Now how many people can say they have the opportunity to do that?!

Today, 26 months after my last dose of chemotherapy, I'm still enjoying remission. Do I think this is the end of it? I don't know. If it's not, I'll just deal with it one day at a time with a positive attitude, much like I always have. But for now, I'm just going to concentrate on living, something I don't feel like I've been able to do for a long time. I'm happy and healthy. I'm marrying a wonderful man-my best friend-in November. And I returned to The Times Leader in an exciting and challenging new role, thus making me feel like I've brought this journey full circle.

This might sound odd, but I'm glad I had cancer. It's made me a better person. It strengthened my bonds with my family, my friends and God. I appreciate little things more and worry less about the unimportant things. And I learned that, even though I was repeatedly faced with incredible odds, I was strong enough to defeat this disease.

Cancer made me who I am today, but it does not, nor will it ever, define me.



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