by: Alexander L.A. Huff
At the age of (22) I was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL). It was something that just kind of happened out of the blue. It was January, 2017 and at the time I worked a full-time job and attended school at Central State University full-time taking (18) credit hours. My days consisted of going to school and on certain days I would leave class about (20) minutes early to make it to work on time. I worked at a group home for adults with special needs and I loved what I was doing because it tied in to special education which is what I’m studying in school. The reason I took the job is because I believed it would give me a clear picture of what life for my students would be like after the (K-12) educational setting. Many of them go to these adult homes and pretty much live in them forever. They go to dayhabs and work jobs that pay less than minimum wage. These are things that I had no idea or concept of so it’s a job that I’m grateful for. This was my routine for about a year. One night I was at work and felt a little stiffness in my lower back. I didn’t think much of it, I just thought it came from me doing too much.
When I got home I took some pain pills and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning the pain had kinda went away but not completely so I took some more pain medicine and headed off to class. This became a recurring routine for a week or so. Finally the pain got so bad that I couldn’t sleep and driving became difficult because it was too painful for me to sit upright. I went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with a really bad back sprain. I was prescribed pain medicine and sent home. The medicine helped with the pain for about a week but right after that the pain came back and it was so intense this time that I couldn’t attend class or make it into work.
I went to urgent care and this time I was diagnosed with a really, really bad back sprain so they increased my pain medicine and the pain did seem to go away. It would come back in small spurts but not bad enough to warrant another trip to the ER or urgent care. A bit later I went to my doctor for a routine physical and follow up appointment. She ran tests on me and everything came back normal with the exception of my liver count and white blood cells being slightly elevated but not to a level that would cause any concern. Months went by and the pain returned so I underwent more testing. We did tests for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, leukemia, anemia, all types of things and everything test came back negative. After completing these test and not finding anything my primary doctor referred me to an oncologist.
The oncologist ran multiple tests and again everything came back negative. At this point, I also began having very bad night sweats. I would wake up and my sheets would be completely drenched. I thought”maybe I have the heat up too high” so I turned the heat down that worked for about two weeks before starting back again. I finally mentioned it to my oncologist and it’s so ironic that I did because in that same appointment she felt like the combination of my counts not being off by much along with all the tests coming back normal that she’d release me and see me in a few months. My oncologist told me she’d see me in six months and was about to head out of the door and I said “okay, and oh and by the way I’m having these night sweats and my whole bed is wet.” At the time the numbers from my test results weren’t in the range for Hodgkin’s or Non-Hodkin’s Lymphoma so there appeared no reason to test for them. However, the news of my night sweats changed the whole game and although my counts weren’t in range for Hodgkin’s or non-Hodkin’s lymphoma news of my night sweats prompted her to test me for it.
It was May and I went home to Cleveland to spend Mother’s Day with my mom. My mother doesn’t like to go through my mail so I had a bunch of envelopes and mail to go through. I had bills from Kettering Medical Center, CompuNet and other places… all of these bills came up to about $12,000. Bills for every test that I had ran and from the emergency room and urgent care visits. I found out that all of these visits and tests were happening outside of our insurance’s network. That forced me to transfer all of my tests and healthcare needs to MetroHealth in Cleveland. The paperwork took some time and MetroHealth wanted to run their own tests on me so that was time consuming as well.
In July of 2017, I was at an internship in Boston where I was one of twenty five students chosen to participate in a program in which we did Mock GRE and Mock Graduate coursework all to help prepare us for grad school. I had to leave the internship early to return to MetroHealth for more tests. When I got to Cleveland they told me that my test results came back positive for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma but that later changed because they really didn’t know if it was Hodgkin’s or non- Hodgkins Lymphoma. I was told that I could return to Boston for the last week and a half of my internship but that when I returned to Cleveland I would have to start chemotherapy. When I got back there was still some confusion about if I had Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkins Lymphoma but either way a bone marrow test would be required.
The bone marrow test caused the most pain that I have ever experienced in my life! They literally dig inside of your bone to get to the marrow and they’re tapping on it so that’s pretty painful. The test results came back in two days or so. It was determined that the lymphoma had spread into my bones which meant that I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. At this time, I was told by the doctors that it would be in my best interest to withdraw from school because they didn’t think I could handle the workload while going trough chemotherapy. I was already about a semester and a half behind in school so I told them that withdrawing from school was not an option. Sick or not ,I was determined to finish school on my schedule so I was committed to push through. The doctors reluctantly agreed to let me go back to school they just instructed me to reduce my credit hours “they didn’t know it but I still took a full load of classes.”
I returned to Central State University that fall semester and thankfully all of my teachers and professors were willing to work with me. They were flexible and even allowed me complete most of my work online and attend classes when I felt strong enough. My insurance was still out of network which meant that I had to commute between CSU and Cleveland for my chemotherapy. I would leave CSU on Thursdays to have chemotherapy in Cleveland on Fridays. After chemo I would sleep the rest of the day on Fridays, all day on Saturdays and half of the day on Sundays. On Sunday evenings, I would drive back to CSU for class. Even though I wasn’t physically going to class I still needed to be there to turn in my work and to get any new assignments. It was also better for me mentally. I did this for a few months and my treatments were complete.
I tried to get my life before cancer back as much as I could. It was very challenging for me mentally because there were times when I would wake up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t feel well at all. There would be nights when I would feel so bad that I would question “is this what dying feels like? Am I going to survive? How is it that this can happen to someone like me that has been fairly healthy? Am I going to make it through this?” All of these questions would cross my mind. In these hours I would have to dig deep and really call on my faith. I would remind myself that I haven’t been brought this far just to be dumped off here. I know that better things are coming. I just have to endure all of the sickness and emotions and then also not to forget my own purpose and why I was planted here. So holding onto that faith is what helped me get through because it was a very, very difficult time. I went back for MetroHealth for scans and there was some confusion about the results. Eventually they said that my cancer was in remission.
This past summer I went back for scans and they determined that they wanted to send me back through another round of tests. This time I was under an insurance plan that allowed me to have things done at The James “which is Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.” After undergoing all of the tests they found that the cancer had returned and began going over different treatment options. Since the first treatment method of (R-CHOP) chemotherapy didn’t work they decided that they would try the (RICE) regimen followed by a stem cell transplant. This meant that they would take my own stem cells; cleanse them and then freeze them until it was time to replace them. Essentially they were taking out my old immune system and replacing it with a new one. This process required six consecutive days of around the clock chemotherapy and a hospital stay of (21) days in which I would be allowed to have visitors but they would be required to wear gowns and masks.
It seemed like a daunting task but my whole motto throughout all of this was “Do what you have to do to survive. Do what you have to do to make it to the next day.” I knew it wouldn’t feel good but if it’s going to improve my quality of life and if it’s going to improve how I live life I have to do what I have to do to make it to the next day. With all of this in mind I embarked on this journey again, this time with a different regimen all while still trying to make it through school. All of my classwork at Central State was done and I was at a point where it was just a matter of completing my student teaching. I had twelve weeks of student teaching that I needed to do so I asked the doctors “how can I make this happen with chemotherapy and student teaching?” The doctors weren’t sure if it was possible and tried to talk me out of it. My overachieving spirit wouldn’t accept that answer so I put a plan in place.
This time around my chemotherapy was a lot more intense than the first time so my bounce back wasn’t as strong as I thought it would be. After the first round of treatment I went back to school and felt pretty good. The second round of treatment was a lot more taxing and I had a hard time even making it into the house without throwing up. I’d go to sleep and wake up feeling like I hadn’t been to sleep at all. That’s what chemo does to you. It's a toxic treatment that drains you physically. I suffered a lot of pain, I lost a lot of weight as well as all of the hair on my body. It also effects you mentally. Most people are prepared for not physically feeling well but we often overlook the mental aspect. That’s something that took it’s toll on me. I saw myself healthy and vibrant and then all of a sudden I looked as though I had a foot in the grave - that does something to you mentally. To see yourself with hair and then with no hair at all anywhere; no eyebrows, no mustache, no beard… no hair anywhere on your body - that does something to you mentally. To see all of the weight loss where your clothes no longer fit you anymore and they all fall off of your body - that does something to you mentally. Going out in public wearing a mask and seeing people stare at you - that does something to you mentally.
There were times I felt as if I was fighting three battles at once. I was trying to maintain and make it through school. I was try to keep afloat mentally while fighting for my life, “it’s me or the disease. How do I fight this fight over something that I see wipe people out every day of the week?” I reached a point where I finally stopped going to school and I stopped working. I was living off of support from my family and the money that I had in my savings account. A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders once the chemo was complete. I still had concerns though because I had been here before. You can end chemotherapy but that doesn’t mean that you’re healthy.
It was time for the stem cell transplant and that was very trying. There were times that I couldn’t eat because I still had sores in my mouth from chemotherapy. There were times where I would throw up on myself because I couldn’t make it to the restroom or to the barf bag. When I was going through all of this I was still trying to do my schoolwork so that I could still stay afloat in school. I got out of the hospital and still needed to complete my student teaching. My family and friends told me that I really needed to take it easy. I told them that I would but I needed to get back and for many reasons. I needed to finish school for my own mental well being and also I had ran out of financial aid and if I didn’t finish that would cause me to have to pay out of pocket along with a few other concerns.
I was back in school three weeks after leaving the hospital so the turnaround time was quick but it was something that I had to do for myself. I just finished student teaching last Thursday and graduation is May 4th. I was able to maintain my honor role status and I finally feel like “I did it!” I know I didn’t do it alone. I definitely didn’t do it alone. God is definitely amazing and good. Without God, I wouldn’t have made it through cancer the first time let alone the second time. So here I am. My cancer is gone, it’s currently in remission. For the first time in two years, I feel like I know what my health looks like. I know what’s going on with me right now. I am optimistic that my future will be great and that my status of being a cancer survivor will be just that, a “survivor”. I will never again have to say that I am a cancer “patient” again. So much comes with that. People hear the word “cancer patient” and they immediately count you out. They look at you like you have an expiration date over you that is soon to run out.
I aspire to be a beacon of hope for somebody to know that you have a disease but the disease doesn’t have you. You can still live a full life and have cancer. My mission is to show people that you can sill live life on your term. You can still be upbeat and positive about life when you're battling cancer. Overall, I feel blessed and fortunate. I will graduate from Central State University with a degree in Education. I didn’t shelve my goals and dreams. I hope that I have shown people that you can battle cancer with grace, that you can fight through any challenges that may present themselves.
Alexander L.A. Huff
Educator | Vocalist | Advocate of Individuals with Special Needs | Fighter | Cancer Survivor
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