Feeling blindsided and unprepared in her own cancer journey, Madeline set out to illuminate the path of other young adults dealing with cancer as a Livestrong Mission and Programs Intern.
By Paula Wielinski BSN, RN
Madeline was a 19-year-old sophomore at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. A political science major, she also had unexpectedly fallen in love with her sociology classes. She was surrounded by a large, close-knit group of friends in her sorority. Outgoing and bubbly, Madeline had seemingly unstoppable energy. But during her second year of college, she caught numerous colds, felt lethargic, and had developed an enlarged lymph node in her neck region. She visited the student health center where she tested negative for mononucleosis and COVID-19. It was thought that her symptoms were the result of a bad cold. Madeline pushed the limits of her energy, kept active, and finished her sophomore year.
Summer break allowed Madeline time to contemplate her health. She reflects, “My lymph node was still enlarged. This felt different. You know your body and when something is not right. I visited my primary doctor in June and the ball to my diagnosis started rolling. His immediate concern was lymphoma.”
Testing moved swiftly, but waiting for test results was trying. Madeline explains, “I have supportive family and friends who were always sending good thoughts and vibes. People wanted to assume the best.” After bloodwork, an ultrasound, and a biopsy, she was diagnosed in late June of 2022 with Stage 3B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, — a disease with a high cure rate, most common in early adulthood. With an excellent prognosis, Madeline embarked on chemo treatments in August 2022. When the fall semester kicked off in late August, Madeline refused to let her diagnosis or treatment inhibit her goals and she took on an ambitious course load remotely. Madeline recalls a prayer that she recited daily:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Reality of the Struggle
“I couldn’t have asked for a better journey at home. I felt the love and support of faraway friends.” She recalls the comfort of being “coddled and protected by family” during the eight months away from friends and campus life. Yet as a young adult, Madeline was eager to return to Waco for classes and her newfound independence. “I wanted everything to click back in and be normal.” After chemo and follow-up scans, the cancer was in remission. Madeline was given a clean bill of health in May of 2023.
Madeline recalls the swiftness of returning to school after six months of chemo, “I finished chemo on January 11, 2023 and was back in the classroom seven days later. It was a massive undertaking going back to in person classes after treatment. Emotionally and physically, it was really hard to be back. Having lost my hair and 100 pounds, I looked like a shell of myself. It was hard to walk and even eat. For my friends, I’m sure it was difficult watching me struggle day-to-day. When you Google chemo, the recovery is not usually talked about. My doctors said that treatment should be straightforward and easy, but that wasn’t my experience. I wasn’t prepared for the reality of the struggle. Seeing a therapist to process everything was really helpful.”
With introspection and counseling, 21-year-old Madeline came to realize, “My body is a machine! I’ve come to praise it and thank it for all it has done for me, but it wasn’t always a positive relationship. I had body image issues long before chemo and going through so many bodily changes really made my head spin. Losing my hair, losing almost 100 pounds, changes in my skin… There were so many things changing and there were times when I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I would look at pictures and mourn my curls. I still do. But I’ve learned so much about beauty — what it looks like and means to me. It has also really changed my perspective on body image. My body is amazing and does amazing things, with or without the weight or hair.”
Madeline proclaims, “I’ve grown to appreciate my body and all it does so much more and I’m much less quick to critique my body or weight because of treatment and everything my body has been through. Seeing my body change, healing from muscle atrophy and neuropathy, strengthening myself and reconditioning it has been an eye opening-experience-one that makes me credit survivors more and more but also makes me remember that I am a fighter. I am strong and so capable. Even if I’m still building up my body, my mind and heart are so much stronger.”
A beacon for others
“I first heard about Livestrong’s fertility preservation program through my doctor. I went to the Livestrong website and read about a Livestrong Mission and Programs intern position. Getting involved with Livestrong really came from a desire to help,” Madeline says. As a young adult, she didn’t see herself represented in the cancer support space. Madeline reflects, “I knew that cancer resources were out there, but I felt abandoned in my age category. I didn’t think there was anything out there for me, my cancer, and for a woman my age. The things I was experiencing were really isolating so when I found Livestrong, and they asked me why I wanted to be a Livestrong intern, the answer was because I didn’t want the next scared 19-year-old feeling how I did: alone. I felt called to tell my story because [when I was diagnosed] I was blindsided, unprepared, and wanted to be a resource for others faced with a similar situation.”
She felt like her input was truly valued by the Livestrong team. “It is so apparent how much they care about filling gaps and finding resources for young adult cancer survivors,” she says. “This work matters to them.”
Madeline volunteered at her first Livestrong Challenge, a bike ride, run, and walk that raises funds for cancer programs, in 2023. “Being a volunteer was a great experience. It’s an electric environment and one that is so positive. It was an emotional day and signing the [survivor] wall was a moment for me to celebrate what I’d been through and feel pride in myself and those around me who fall into that same category…I felt so connected to my own survival and everyone else’s. Challenge allowed me the chance to truly live out Livestrong’s mission and my own.”
Now 21 years old, Madeline contemplates what advice she would give her 19-year-old self, “You will have to give yourself grace. Let the fighter in you rest to heal from the fight. I wanted to run and leap but that led to falls and tears. One day you will be able to run and leap again.” She recalls a Bible verse she prayed over:
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Madeline hopes to be the light in someone’s tunnel. Through her internship at Livestrong, she is illuminating the path for other young adults with cancer diagnoses. Madeline interviews other survivors, and contributes ideas about preparing other young adults for therapy. “I am asked for my opinion, which I love. I am privileged to help amplify young adults’ stories and work to connect them with more resources.”
Madeline reflects, “My family can’t thank Livestrong enough for walking through this journey with me. Everything happens for a reason. I feel that about my work with Livestrong now.”