By Ethan Hawes
So much of a cancer diagnosis is how you view it.
From 2013, when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma as a 22-year-old college senior, until 2016, I felt isolated and insecure. Getting diagnosed with something so rare at 22 was terrifying and overwhelming. As a young person, I hadn’t faced such a struggle before and I didn’t know how to cope.
Those three years were a whirlwind of harsh treatments that left my body and emotions exposed. In 2013, after I experienced an excruciating pain in my hip while training for and running the Madrid Marathon, I returned home to Maine and eventually had an X-ray. I wasn’t expecting anything serious; I was a healthy 22-year-old athlete, after all. I was in disbelief when the doctor told me the neck of my femur was eroding and there was a fist-sized tumor in its place. I had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer predominately found in people over the age of 65.
I was immediately referred to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where, despite the difficult circumstances, I instantly felt comforted and cared for. My amazing team, led by Robert Schlossman, MD, and later Irene Ghobrial, MD, had a treatment plan ready to go: intensive radiation, hip surgery, three months of chemotherapy, and then a stem cell transplant.
The stem cell transplant in 2014 stripped me of my immune—and emotional—defenses. I was quarantined for two weeks and at my lowest point both physically and emotionally, truly reckoning with my own mortality for the first time. With the support of my Dana-Farber team, family, and friends, I successfully made it through an uphill battle, but still had trouble adjusting to my “new normal.”
It was in 2016, when I had a full hip replacement to resolve lingering pain, that everything started to change for me mentally. Finally, after three years, I was pain-free and able to start thinking about my future. It took a long time, and a lot of hard work, but I began to see a small amount of progress and that alone felt empowering.
Today, I am on maintenance therapy and see my doctors every few months, but even during my most difficult times, I felt safe at Dana-Farber, knowing I would make a full recovery because of the confidence and knowledge of my team, and the support of my family and friends. I now see my diagnosis and the challenges that accompanied it as huge motivators for me to be my absolute best and to show up for the people who showed up for me every single day during those three years.
Back in 2013, my team at Dana-Farber’s Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center said I could be a trailblazer in the multiple myeloma community, and that is what I’m trying to do. My mission is to have an impact on the myeloma, oncology, and young adult communities by sharing the lessons and experiences I’ve gathered. I feel fortunate to have gone to events like Dana-Farber’s Multiple Myeloma Patient Symposium to understand the current state of the disease and the work Dr. Ghobrial and her colleagues are doing. Knowing the energy, effort, and diligence they are dedicating to myeloma research makes me feel confident in my future and in the futures of other myeloma patients.
My vision is to be one of the leaders in multiple myeloma, by being a mentor to other newly diagnosed patients; raising awareness, through speaking at events like the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon presented by Arbella Insurance Foundation and the Jimmy Fund Golf Classic; and, most importantly, inspiring others to know that it’s okay if you feel overwhelmed and stressed—things can get better and this can be an empowering experience.