From denial to defiance: Jillian’s cancer story

Weeks prior to 19-year-old Jillian’s high school graduation, she had been experiencing fatigue and noticed a few lumps in her neck. She didn’t think much of them, but after encouragement from her family, she went to the doctor and soon found herself in Boston for a biopsy. The same week she would be walking across the stage to receive her high school diploma, she was diagnosed with stage II Hodgkin lymphoma.

“My immediate reaction was to try to carry on my life as if I weren’t sick—I was in denial,” Jillian recalls. “Because I was a teenager, I was worried about being seen differently by my peers. The thought of losing my hair or taking time off of school devastated me. I had plans to move away to college in the fall and I didn’t want cancer to change that.”

Jillian quickly started treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute under the direction of Ann LaCasce, MD, MMSc, whom Jillian calls a comfort in such a dark time.

“Dr. LaCasce always showed up with a smile and answered my questions with ease,” Jillian says. “My nurse, Chisom, also went above and beyond. She took the time to learn what triggered my nausea and what my interests were. Without my amazing team at Dana-Farber, I don’t know how I would have gotten through chemo.”

Jillian’s treatment consisted of 12 rounds of chemotherapy over the course of six months, with visits to Dana-Farber every other week. The treatment made her feel nauseous and fatigued, and some days she didn’t even want to get out of bed.

While Jillian was hesitant to accept her diagnosis at first, she soon recognized how important her chemotherapy and surgeries were, and started focusing on staying positive and allowing herself to take time away from her “normal” routine.

“Instead of moving away to school that semester, I stayed home and took two classes at a community college near my house. I tried to stay active and distracted on days when I felt good,” Jillian explains. “This helped me focus on things other than my diagnosis and helped reduce the anxiety surrounding my upcoming treatment each week.”

“I found that staying positive helped me not get caught up in the fear and unfairness of having cancer,” Jillian says. “My nurse and I always found ways to entertain ourselves to make chemo days go by faster, and being happy and laughing with her made me feel so much better. I looked forward to seeing her every week, she kept me smiling on some of my worst days.”

Halfway through Jillian’s treatment, when even the sight of her chemo could make her vomit, she had a scan that showed they would have to continue with the full treatment cycle. While it was the answer everyone expected, Jillian had hoped for a different outcome. But with the help of her care team and support system, she made it through, and is glad she continued on until her scans were fully clear.

Today, Jillian is in her fourth year of remission and is proud of the work her body did to defy cancer.

“It took a long time for me to be able to share my cancer story with others,” Jillian says. “I used to see my diagnosis as something to hide so I wouldn’t feel different. Now, I see it as one of my greatest strengths.”

Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund’s annual Giving Day, May 26, is a special opportunity to support our Defy Cancer Fund, helping Dana-Farber tackle cancer’s biggest problems—and save more lives like Jillian’s. Donate to defy cancer.