“Here’s How I Knew I Had Lymphoma”: One Patient’s Story of Recovery and Hope

Updated: Jun. 21, 2024

One patient shares how she learned she had lymphoma when a stubborn symptom following a cold wouldn't disappear...

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that arises within the immune system and generally fits into two main categories: Hodgkin lymphoma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This distinction, however, only scratches the surface, as more than 70 subtypes of lymphoma exist, the Cleveland Clinic says. Originating from white blood cells (also called “lymphocytes”), lymphoma is considered a blood cancer.

Data from the American Cancer Society indicate that non-Hodgkin lymphoma accounts for about 4% of all cancer cases, with approximately 80,620 new diagnoses and 20,140 deaths projected for 2024. Experts suggest Hodgkin lymphoma, though rarer, is expected to see about 8,570 new cases and result in 910 deaths in 2024.

Types of lymphoma vary significantly, ranging from aggressive, fast-growing subtypes to those that progress slower. Many lymphoma cases respond well to treatment, leading to remission or even cure.

Certain lymphoma risk factors can increase susceptibility to the disease. These include:

  • a family history of lymphoma
  • history of specific viral infections (such as HIV, Epstein-Barr, and others)
  • a compromised immune system
  • autoimmune diseases

It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the key symptoms of lymphoma, which may include:

  • Painless swelling in one or more lymph nodes that persists beyond a few weeks, often but not always found in the neck, armpits, or groin
  • Fever without a known cause
  • Persistent fatigue that isn’t alleviated by rest
  • Shortness of breath, which can occur even with minimal exertion
  • Unexplained weight loss, not linked to diet or exercise changes
  • Night sweats, which can be severe enough to drench sleepwear and bedding

It’s important to note, however, that lymphoma can present as symptoms even beyond these.

Continue reading as Tara M. from Pennsylvania, who was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 28, shares her story of challenges and resilience that may provide enlightenment to navigate a lymphoma diagnosis, reminding us of the strength found in personal stories and the potential for brighter days ahead.

Here’s how I knew I had lymphoma

By Tara M., as told to Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO

It all started with a lump on my neck that I couldn’t ignore. At first, I brushed it off as a swollen lymph node from a recent cold—a cold that was proving tough to shake off—but as weeks turned into a couple months, the lump remained, and I knew something wasn’t right.

I was also dealing with some unusual itchiness all over my body. I tried different moisturizers and lotions, but nothing seemed to relieve it. I had always struggled with dry skin, but this was different. It would eventually come to light that the cause behind this incessant itch was what was indeed lurking beneath the surface.

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Being diagnosed with lymphoma

I was 28 years old, had just fallen in love, and was genuinely excited about life. The thought of cancer had never crossed my mind. I was a healthy, active young woman with a promising career that was starting to take off, as I was recently promoted at my job. Still, in the back of my mind, as the lump persisted, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. With a gentle nudge from my partner, I decided to see my doctor in July 2021, who referred me to another doctor for more in-depth tests.

On the day of my biopsy, I was a bundle of nerves, trying to convince myself it was all going to be a big nothing. Lying there, I attempted to still my anxious thoughts. I couldn’t. The moment my doctor called with the results, my world stopped.

“You have Hodgkin lymphoma.”

As those words echoed, everything seemed surreal. I struggled to grasp the flood of information that followed, barely registering anything beyond the diagnosis. A whirlwind of emotions overwhelmed me: How could this happen, I wondered, especially when I’ve always made such an effort to take care of my health?

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Treatment after I knew I had lymphoma

The following weeks were a blur of medical appointments, scans, and tests. I felt like I was taking a crash course on lymphoma, a condition about which I had known next to nothing just a short while ago. The lump was in fact a swollen lymph node. Research suggests the itchiness may have been caused by cytokines, which are proteins that the immune system fires off when it’s fighting an illness.

On the bright side, my medical team shared that the type of cancer I had was classified as “early favorable.” It helped ease my mind when I heard those words. I was diagnosed at stage 2 without any risk factors that increase the chance of the cancer coming back.

That was a huge relief to hear, but it didn’t make the treatment any easier. What really hit me were the fatigue and nausea that came with chemotherapy. And the moment I started to lose some strands of hair, I was overwhelmed with emotions—tears flowed freely at first. With time, I found a way to embrace this new reality.

Throughout all of this, the support I received was nothing short of amazing. My partner, who had entered my life not long before this storm, stood by me through all the highs and lows.

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There is an issue I want to address that weighed heavily on my mind during my diagnosis. As I was a young adult, most of my friends were focused on their careers, relationships, and starting families. I must confess, I felt like I was in a different world, fighting cancer while everyone else moved on with theirs. That made my fight feel most isolating of all. I tried to transform that feeling into a strength to fight the illness. I had to focus on what mattered most: healing and soaking in all the love and support from the ones closest to me.

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Becoming cancer-free after I knew I had lymphoma

As I neared the end of my treatment, I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My progressive scans showed that the cancer was responding to the treatment, and my doctors were optimistic about my prognosis.

After treatment, I received the news I had been waiting for—there was no evidence of disease! The joy and relief I felt in that moment were indescribable.

However, my story doesn’t stop here. As a cancer survivor, I know that I will always carry the scars of my battle, both physical and emotional. I now navigate a new normal, one that includes regular check-ups, lingering side effects, and a fear of recurrence. Not long after, I found comfort in connecting with other survivors, and a dear friend of mine is currently facing a different battle, as her cancer has returned. She has had to endure additional rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant…but I am happy to report the treatment is working!

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Gratitude has become a key part of my life to help me through any fear I’m experiencing. I shift my focus to what’s good and positive, and it’s also opened my eyes to the beauty of everyday moments, teaching me to treasure time with those I love and not to take my health for granted. Following my treatment, new chapters unfolded, beginning with my engagement to my boyfriend. Today we are happily married and now navigating starting our family.

To anyone facing a cancer diagnosis, I want to say this: You are not alone. There is hope, even in the darkest of times. Surround yourself with a strong support system, lean on the expertise of your medical team, and never lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.

Cancer may change your life, but it does not define you.

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