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Survivor Viewpoint

Toni Spano-English Toni Spano-English, Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, 1989

What went through your mind when you were first diagnosed?

It all happened really fast. I felt a lump in my neck that wasn’t there the day before. Thinking it might be mono, I saw a doctor, who ruled that out and ordered a biopsy– the diagnosis came within a week. I was 18– just out of high school. I remember exactly what I thought when I heard the word cancer: I was going to get very thin, lose my hair, throw up all the time and then die.

What was it like to go through cancer treatment as a teenager?

I had eight months of chemotherapy and lost all my hair after the first treatment. Remember, big hair was the “thing” in the ’80’s, so I was devastated to lose mine. I underwent a number of surgeries, each leaving another shameful scar. My spleen had to be removed, which made it tough to fight infections – and still does.Toward the end of each month’s chemo, low blood counts and fevers would land me in the hospital for days– that was before today’s anti-side effect medications.With friends away at college, I didn’t have many hospital visitors, and with hair loss and weight gain from steroid treatments, I was embarrassed to have company at home. I was isolated and angry. I really let cancer take over my life.

Knowing what you know now, any advice for young adults facing cancer?

Looking back, I can see that keeping to myself and spending energy trying to protect others didn’t help me or anyone else.The best advice I can give is to reach out, even when it’s hard – and be specific about what you need. If you want company, say so. If you want to be by yourself, don’t hesitate to speak up about that, too. People want to help, but they need to know what to do.

Tell us about your life now–has the cancer of your youth impacted your adult life?

Not long after finishing my treatment I began sharing my cancer experience with others as a peer counselor at the Cancer Center – I’ve been involved in the program ever since. I always wished someone my age could have been there for me, so stepping into that role has been very rewarding. Cancer taught me there are no guarantees.

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