Ryan, at age 18, started having back pain and night sweats, and started to lose neurological function from the waist down. His hometown hospital didn't know why his problems were occurring, so he was sent to Lutheran General in Park Ridge, Illinois. During the week he was there, the doctors found a lump behind his sternum, and when they biopsied it a week later, they found out he had cancer.
Originally, his doctors thought he would be paralyzed from the waist down due to transverse myelitis, a spinal cord autoimmune disease, which he described as feeling like he got punched in the face. Fortunately, this turned out not to be the case, but he did have a battle ahead of him. He realized it was something that he could deal with, even though things were definitely scary. After that, he underwent chemo using a port starting July 11, 2005. He completed his 3 3-week cycles of chemo on November 21, 2005. all the wonderful support from his parents, five siblings, and his core group of friends, he handled through chemo.
Ryan is now a nutrition major at the University of Illinois. Because of one of his chemo drugs, his heart was functioning slightly below normal, so he’s exercising more to maintain heart health. He’s a dedicated member of Colleges Against Cancer, as well as a volunteer at a summer camp for kids with cancer. He has been cancer free for 4 years, and while it is in the back of his mind that his cancer may reappear, he’s staying positive and trying not to worry.
They don’t want to be treated like they have cancer, because it’s not something they want to identify themselves… I mean maybe I’m just speaking from a personal stance, but it’s important to realize they’re still just the same as you. And while they have all this fundraising for them, it’s for the greater cause. You don’t want to be singled out as like the bald kid and all that other stuff.
When you’re a kid, you’re kind of at the start, you’re just by yourself. You slowly trickle in and find other people that have had the same experience, then you’re able to relate with them. It’s kind of cool how you can make those connections with people. I think maybe as a child, it’s more special in a way, because it is something unique. And it is something that is a struggle, and you can learn through it.
I started there [the summer camp] two summers ago…It’s fun. It’s an escape for them. When you’re getting treated you don’t want to be labeled that way, but when they come together, they’re all, not the same, but it’s almost out of their lives. If they talk about it, it’s not a big deal.
I think it’s made me more proactive because I don’t know if I would be involved in the organization [Colleges Against Cancer] if weren't for my experience. It just kind of exposed me to the necessity of groups like that.
I find that I don’t sweat the small stuff as much, in any situation I guess. Maybe it’s made me too laid back… You realize things aren't such a big deal.
Everybody’s unique in the way they take it… I know one kid that had cancer, and he’s a lot more task-oriented now. He feels that because his life was interrupted like that before, he doesn't want it to be interrupted like that again. He wants to get everything that he can done, and wants to be on task, and just doing all these things, to try to accomplish himself early.
I know if they call you back, and they say something looks funny, your heart kind of drops a little bit, and you have a pit in your chest, and it’s not very comfortable, but you just have to tell yourself to relax. Chances are minimal.
That’s probably the hardest part, going through the emotions and stuff. That is harder to deal with than the physical pain. That’s something you almost get used to, even though it does suck. It’s more like a mental battle than a physical battle sometimes.
Even now, I probably think about it not in a negative way. But it’s in your head almost every day.
Thelma Frerichs Blue Earth, Minnesota
Wendy Hughes Deerfield, Illinois