My Cancer Crash Course
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By Josh Hysell

My Cancer Crash Course

A young man learns what caregiving is all about

By Josh Hysell


I met Rebecca Lynn Higgins on May 22, 2002. It was just after my junior year of high school and her freshman year of college. I was 17 and she was 19. She was beautiful and very outgoing. By July, we were dating.

That August, Becky returned home to Illinois early from a family trip to Wisconsin with what appeared to be a swollen gland. At the hospital, a doctor checked her over and brushed off the lump as an infection, but he told Becky to make an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor. Becky’s mother lived in a distant state, and her father worked long hours and wasn’t home much, so she really didn’t have family to accompany her to the doctor. I went with her so she wouldn’t have to be alone.

Two weeks later Becky and I met the specialist, who told us she might have lymphoma. We had no clue what or how serious lymphoma was until we read that it is a form of cancer that attacks the body’s lymph nodes. The only knowledge either of us had of this or any other type of cancer was the things we could dig up on the internet. Becky needed CT and PET scans, which showed a growth in her chest. A biopsy of the lump in her neck revealed stage IIIB Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

We quickly realized our summer plans were about to change drastically. Instead of hanging out with friends, we were going to doctors appointments, and instead of partying at night, I was comforting my girlfriend while she cried. It’s hard to tell someone you care about that everything is going to be all right when, really, you don’t have a clue if it is or not.

Becky needed intense chemotherapy and radiation. The day she began chemotherapy was the most painful day of my life—watching her get hooked up to an IV and sitting there not knowing if this was going to work, and her asking me if I would still love her if she was bald. The next day I shaved my head to prove that it didn’t make any difference how she looked.

The immune-boosting shots Becky received during chemotherapy left her feeling the worst. She was sick and drained every day. I helped her sit up in bed, made her food, helped her shower, and tried to make her laugh as much as possible. I tried to stay focused on graduating from high school and getting to my part-time job with no car, but her situation was always running through my head. I discovered that my friends just didn’t understand why I wasn’t hanging out with them. Some friends and family asked me how I could justify sacrificing my time to help my new girlfriend, and wondered how I would react if she didn’t recover.

After radiation, Becky had another series of scans, blood work and one more biopsy. That’s when we got the good news that she was cleared and in remission. To say I could explain my emotions during this period in my life would be a lie. There are too many intense feelings that are inexplicable. I cannot imagine if I had listened to friends and family and not stuck with Becky. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been easier had we been older, with money and established lifestyles and careers; I doubt it.

I now know how precious life and health are, and I’ve learned at a young age not to take anything for granted. If there is one thing I can say that I wish I knew back then, that I do know now, it’s that Becky is healthy today and has resumed her life and almost graduated from college. I wouldn’t change a single decision I made.

Josh Hysell lives in Antioch, Ill.