Twenty-year-old Shay Christopher from Bridgeton, NJ, was just like any other girl her age. She enjoyed hanging out with friends, going to the shore, and making plans for the future.
But when she learned of her cancer diagnosis, Shay felt anything but normal. She said she recalls wondering, “‘How could this happen? I’m too young.’”
Shay had spent weeks prior to her diagnosis feeling tired and short of breath leading her to believe a bad cold or the flu was to blame. She says she felt as if her body was in a fight, but she tried to not let it slow her down.
The appearance of a visible lump on the side of Shay’s throat finally prompted her to seek medical attention. Blood work and a CT scan were scheduled for a week later. In the meantime, her condition worsened; walking short distances became an effort, and breathing became increasingly difficult. At her mother’s insistence, Shay went to the local emergency room.
Doctors suspected mononucleosis, a common viral illness that often causes weakness and fatigue, but tests revealed something much more frightening — acute lymphoblastic lymphoma.
Lymphoblastic lymphoma is very similar to acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and the two conditions are often treated in very similar ways. (Early tests indicated that Shay had ALL, but more specific studies later on determined that Shay had lymphoblastic lymphoma.) In ALL, the abnormal lymphocytes are found mainly in the blood and bone marrow, but with lymphoblastic lymphoma the abnormal cells are found in the lymph nodes or thymus gland. Lymphoblastic lymphoma can affect the bone marrow or other organs such as the liver and kidneys.
Shay and her mom, Kim Bozearth, were shocked. The physicians told them that Shay’s condition was extremely serious.
Initially, Shay received aggressive IV steroids but when her kidneys started to fail, her local hospital recommended that she be transferred to a large academic medical center better equipped to deal with her mounting critical issues. Shay was immediately transferred to Cooper University Hospital and admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU).
Once stabilized, Shay was moved to Cooper’s inpatient oncology unit under the care of Kanu Sharan, MD, Hematologist/Medical Oncologist, and began the first “induction” phase of chemotherapy treatment designed to rapidly kill as many tumor cells as possible, get blood counts back to normal and eliminate all signs of the disease.
After a month as an inpatient at Cooper, Shay went home to continue the second or “consolidation” phase of treatment as an outpatient. The consolidation phase is aimed at killing any leukemia cells lingering in the brain or spinal cord with the goal of sustaining remission. In Shay’s case, this meant enduring more spinal taps, bone marrow biopsies, blood transfusions, and chemotherapy.
“I remember telling my mom, ‘I just want to be normal again, to go back to school, to my life,”’ Shay says. According to her mother, Shay’s strong will wouldn’t let cancer slow her down. She continued her studies making the Dean’s List twice. “Shay never had a down moment,” she says and after six months of treatment, they received good news. Her cancer had gone into remission.
Unfortunately Shay and her family’s triumph and relief were short-lived. After only six weeks in remission and a few days shy of her 21st birthday, Shay’s cancer returned. This time, because it was a re-occurrence of her disease, her condition was even more serious than when she was initially diagnosed.
Shay desperately needed a bone marrow transplant to stop her condition from progressing. Because of the strong relationship between Cooper and The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) — one of only two transplant centers in the state of New Jersey — Shay was transferred to CINJ to prepare for and undergo the transplant.
Today, cancer free for a year, Shay recalls the jarring shift after treatment that catapulted her from a focused, medical regimen back into a “normal” daily life. Only after finishing treatment has she been able to absorb the emotional and physical toll her cancer has taken. Isolation was, and still is, a major obstacle. Following the transplant, she was homebound for weeks to allow her immune system to strengthen.
At 22, Shay is piecing together her interrupted life, managing the long-term side-effects of her leukemia and treatment, and grappling with the fear of re-occurrence and complications. Yet, Shay is focused on staying healthy and getting back on track. No matter where life leads her, Shay knows that being a cancer survivor will always be part of who she is. Shay has participated in two American Cancer Society Relay For Life® events to help raise money, celebrate her survival, and inspire others to continue to fight.
“You just got to believe that you’re going to keep going,” she says. “And just keep your head up and keep fighting. I’m more aware of how short life is, and I’ve still got a lot of living to do.”