Lymphoma is lime green and other revelations from a young woman's battle with cancer
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- As a senior at Augustana College majoring in business administration and accounting, Ashley Pike is immersed in her final year of studies. She's planning a wedding for June 2010 and preparing to take the Law School Admission Test.
There's one other major distraction in her life right now -- cancer. Ashley, a 2005 graduate of Jackson High School and daughter of Dan and Jean Pike of Jackson, was diagnosed last fall with Stage 2A Nodular Sclerosis Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
"I didn't have any symptoms," recalled Ashley about the day her tumor was discovered. "It was a Wednesday evening back in October, and I'd had school all day, worked and came home and had supper. For some reason, I put my hand on my neck, and there was a lump on the left side. I looked in the mirror, and it was noticeable."
Ashley decided to go into the Sanford Hospital emergency room at about 9 p.m.
"About midnight I saw the doctor, and she said I needed to have a CT scan done. It took a while to get the results, and about 2 a.m. she came back in. I took one look at her face -- she had tears in her eyes -- and she told me I had a tumor in my chest about the size of my fist. Right away, she said it was more than likely cancer, and it would be lymphoma. I really thought, when I went to the ER, that I had mono or something."
In the ensuing days, Ashley, accompanied by her parents, saw an ear, nose and throat specialist, who did a needle biopsy, underwent a surgical biopsy and PET (positron emission tomography) scan.
"From looking at the biopsy results and PET scan, they were pretty much able to say it was Hodgkin's Lymphoma and that the only tumor was the one in my chest," Ashley related. "One of the first things my doctor said on the phone was, 'If my daughter had cancer, I'd want her to have Hodgkin's Lymphoma.' It had been a week, and we'd been very worried and anxious and doing a lot of crying and praying. That morning, when we got the call, we were laughing and crying because that was what it was. We were happy it was something we could treat. It was a good phone call."
The Pikes were also gratified that Ashley's oncologist, Kamran Darabi, had spent time in Germany researching Hodgkin's Lymphoma, making it his area of specialty. A course of chemotherapy was prescribed to combat Ashley's tumor.
"My parents decided we should go to Rochester and get a second opinion, to make sure we were starting off on the right foot," Ashley said. "We wanted the treatment to be in Sioux Falls, but Mayo is so close, we took advantage of that, too. ... We met with a radiologist who told us pretty much the same thing as Sanford told me -- the same kind of chemo, except they recommended I do it for four months and do some radiation afterward."
In the meantime, Ashley became engaged to her longtime boyfriend, Jon Schmit, also from Jackson, who is majoring in mechanical engineering at South Dakota State University in Brookings. It was a joyous occurrence in the midst of a time of turmoil.
"The day after Thanksgiving I started chemo," Ashley continued. "I enjoyed Thanksgiving to the fullest, then on Black Friday, also my mom's 50th birthday, I started treatment. She had to spend her birthday in the chemo unit."
Ashley went to that first chemo session -- and the seven that followed -- dressed for battle.
"The morning after I was diagnosed, we were at IHOP having breakfast, and I said I wanted a shirt that I could wear to my treatments," she recalled. "I wanted to start fighting -- I was in the fight mode of the stages of grieving -- and I wanted to go out and beat this cancer. First of all, I had to figure out what color lymphoma is. I was pretty sure it was lime green, so it's a lime green shirt. On the front, it says, 'It's time to fight,' and one the back is one of my favorite Bible verses, Philippians 4:13: 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.' I thought it was fitting for the situation. I'm a 21-year-old college student. I'm not going to stop living my life. I'm going to do this and move on."
When Ashley wrote about the T-shirt on her Caring Bridge online site, friends and family wanted one, too. Ashley's Green Team was born.
"We ended up selling 200 T-shirts," Ashley said, "a lot to family, close friends, people from Jackson, Augustana, family from all over the country. I have a cousin who lives in South Africa, and she and her husband have T-shirts. My cousin's cat has a shirt. ... All of the money is going to be donated to the American Cancer Society. It got a lot bigger than I ever expected. And every two weeks, on my treatment Friday, the majority of these people are wearing their shirts."
Many of Ashley's supporters have another reminder to keep her in their thoughts and prayers as she goes through treatment -- prayer bells.
"My aunt, Ruth Hansen -- we've always been very close -- I don't know where she came up with it, but she came up with the idea of having prayer bells. There's a bell on a green piece of ribbon, and she handed out all these bells to family, friends, at work. You put them somewhere -- on a cabinet door, on your purse like my mom did -- anywhere that every day you'll hear the bell ring, and then you say a prayer for me."
Caring Bridge, which offers free, personalized Web sites to support and connect loved ones during critical illness, treatment and recovery -- has also become an important support mechanism for Ashley.
"I had been following Caring Bridge sites of other people and always liked the way they could express themselves, the good days, the bad days, and talk about them. ... To begin with, it was (a way) to get the information out there, because it can be very overwhelming, but since then it's been a great thing for me to journal about what I'm going through. The majority of my site has not just been about cancer, but also being engaged, getting a puppy, Callie. It's been kind of a fun thing to talk about how my life is going. I know there are a lot of people who stay updated beyond my team of green shirts, and that's been such an inspiration to have so many people supporting me and writing on my guest book."
The good, the bad, the bald
Every other Friday since Thanksgiving, Ashley has reported for another round of chemotherapy.
"I always tell people that I have a good week and a bad week," Ashley explained. "The first week after treatment, it's hard getting back on my feet and I'm tired. By the second week, I'm feeling like myself, feeling good. ... Then you know when you walk back in (the chemo center) that you're going to walk out and feel not as good."
Most of the treatments have lasted about three hours, but a new drug was added for No. 7, pushing it to almost eight hours. Besides nausea and tiredness, the other major side effect for Ashley has been hair loss.
"I was told I would lose all my hair, and I was not too excited about that, but I knew it was part of the journey," Ashley related. "I had really thick blonde hair, and I told my parents and Jon that I didn't want to go through all that patchy hair process, so we're going to shave my head. So that's what I did. ... It's probably half-an-inch long now. ... I ended up getting a wig that I've worn a few times, but I've really gotten into hats. I wear a lot of stocking caps."
End in sight
On March 6, Ashley had her eighth -- and final -- chemotherapy treatment.
Mom Jean posted this message on the Caring Bridge site: Cheers!!! Hoorah!!! Yipee!!! Ashley is done with her chemo treatments! It was with mixed feelings that we left the oncology clinic today. Wonderful to be done with the infusions every other week, but sad to say goodbye to the nurses and other patients.
Ashley has something else to celebrate in a couple of days -- her 22nd birthday on March 16 -- and then there's the completion of mid-terms for Augustana's spring semester. With the help and understanding of her professors, Ashley has been able to keep up with her classwork and plans to graduate on time in May. She has also made plans for a spring break trip to Arizona with friends.
In a few weeks, Ashley will have another PET scan to determine the effects of the chemotherapy on the tumor. No matter the outcome of the scan, she will likely undergo radiation to make sure the cancer is completely eradicated. While she anticipates those final phases of her treatment program, Ashley is focused on the post-cancer future.
"I like to put a lot of things on my plate, and I've decided I want to go to law school," she shared. "But first I wanted to take a year off. I'll take my CPA exam while that is all fresh in my mind. I'll be taking the LSAT exam in June, and I'm planning to go to law school, if I'm accepted, in the fall of 2010. And I have a wedding to plan in the midst of everything else.
"(In the meantime) I'm going to go back to Jackson and work for my dad in the real estate/auction business. My roommates tell me that I have my life on a spread sheet. I like to have things all planned out for five years ahead of time. One of the biggest lessons I've learned from having cancer is that you can't do that. Plans can change overnight, so I need to slow down and enjoy what I'm doing in the moment."
Throughout her battle with cancer, Ashley has relied on the four "Fs" that play major roles in her life -- faith, family, fiancé, friends.
"I was raised in a family that our lives are based in faith in God, that everything we do, through good times and bad times, you need to pray to God," she said. "As hard as it's been, as emotional as this journey has been, I could rely on my faith to get me through.
"There have been many prayers sent up, and that's another cool thing about Augustana -- faith and prayer and God can be part of your everyday conversation, it doesn't have to be something that's weird. ... I really do believe that prayer has helped me get through this. Every prayer helps.
"And I really couldn't have gotten through this without my family and friends -- my parents and Jon, especially. They've been absolutely incredible. You go through ups and downs, both physically and emotionally, and I'm very thankful for all the love and support people have given me."
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