Share Your Story: Surviving Lymphoma

How I Learned to Stay Informed and Stay Healthy

Shannon Mulvihill, RN

April 3, 2015

As I sat in a cold, plastic lined chair in the infusion center, hooked up and ready to begin my first chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I had one of those ‘how the heck did I end up here?’ moments. I had been a nurse since I was 18 years old, and I was having a hard time accepting my role on the flip side of the healthcare system. It was my 37th birthday. I had been young and healthy only one month before.

2015_10_14 iStock Stay informed stay healthy

At least I had been thinking of myself as young and healthy. The truth is, before the cancer diagnosis, I had absolutely no idea what the actual state of my health really was.

That’s the critical error so many of us make – we don’t take control of our health until it’s too late. I’m a nurse and a mother of three, and looking back I should have known better. I spent every waking hour worrying and caring for others. Somehow I had it in my head that, medically speaking, we are who we are. What I mean by that is – we have one set of genes. If you get a set of ‘good ones’, then you’ll be okay. If you randomly inherited your parent’s dysfunctional DNA, then oh well, tough luck.

In nursing school we learned the value of a thorough family history. Diabetes, celiac disease, heart problems, cancer — they are all connected to what was passed down at birth from Mom and Dad. Of course I knew that lifestyle choices could negatively impact your health, but the genetic component makes up almost all of the risk, right?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I knew that malnutrition could sicken or even kill a person. What I didn’t know was that the lack of necessary nutrients in an average American diet can lead to such severe deficiencies in vitamins and minerals that the immune system can quickly and suddenly malfunction. Something as simple as taking a vitamin C supplement and getting a few minutes of sun each day can decrease your chances of getting sick with a multitude of illnesses.

I also knew that the environment had an effect on health. Everyone knows that smoking increases heart and lung disease and alcoholics end up with liver cirrhosis. As a nurse I had seen it first hand – men who worked for Johns Manville died of lung cancer before their children graduated high school. I knew the biggies – asbestos, lead, mercury – but I didn’t smoke or drink, and I didn’t work in a factory inhaling chemicals all day, so shouldn’t I have been safe? Not by a long shot…

What I’ve learned is that there is a bigger picture. Constant attacks on the immune system occur without exception. The body has intricate systems in place to neutralize these assaults, and keeping those structures from becoming overwhelmed needs to be a top priority.

Let’s face it – trying to avoid all harmful environmental exposures would be foolish (not to mention, impossible!), but not trying to avoid any of them is an even bigger mistake. Simple choices like choosing glass instead of drinking from plastic bottles that contain BPA, or staying away from using deodorants that contain aluminum, can end up being one of the decisions that keeps your immune system from going off the rails.

I made a lot of mistakes in the years leading up to my diagnosis. I worked night shift, sleeping only a few hours at a time. I took a stressful job because it paid better. I skipped meals so I wouldn’t get fat, then pigged out on junk food when I finally got too hungry to care. I never took a vitamin, and I never read the label on my diet coke. I sprayed my yard with RoundUp® so the weeds wouldn’t grow, and I washed my dogs in flea baths so the kids wouldn’t get flea bites. Since that time, I have learned so much. The most important piece is to stay informed. Look things up. Dig for answers.

I spent a lot of (wasted) time in the beginning looking for those answers. Why did I get sick? What was the one thing I did to cause those lymph cells to turn cancerous? It wasn’t until I sat in a Sloan Kettering office across from an expert in my disease, months after my diagnosis, that I got the answer to my ‘how did I end up here’ question.

“Doctor, I need to know…what did I do wrong?”

“It wasn’t something you did,” she said matter-of-factly, “It was a thousand things.”

Six months of chemo and four years of remission later, I find myself finally able to admit that my willingness to accept the “there’s nothing I can do about my genes” perspective was an excuse to stay asleep at the wheel. I didn’t know (maybe didn’t want to know) that in order to stay healthy, you have to actively work at building a healthy immune system. And there is so much you can do.

If you were inspired by this story and have one of your own to share, please visit Share Your Story.

These are personal stories and not intended to give medical advice or opinions.

Read More from the FFH “Share Your Story” series:

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    Share Your Story: Defeating the “Breast Cancer Gene”

    A tale of three sisters


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