My name is Rachel Iruegas, and on June 4, 2019, I heard the dreaded words that no one ever wants to hear: “you have cancer.” I was diagnosed with stage 2B Hodgkin lymphoma (HL). In that moment, my mind went blank and my body numb. I honestly do not remember much of what my oncologist said after that. I knew I was in the room with her, surrounded by my family, but my body wanted to be somewhere else – anywhere else but there. I knew in that moment that my life was going to completely change, and I had no way of stopping that. Here’s the thing: I HATE change; it’s the one thing I have always feared growing up, and I still do to this day. Learning I had cancer at 30 years old was absolutely mind-blowing to me. We always think, “oh no, I’m too young to get cancer; it won’t happen to me.” Well, I surely was wrong.
At the time, I went to see my primary care doctor to check out my heart rate. She ordered blood work because she too was worried that my heart rate was too fast and my blood pressure too high. I honestly thought I would just need blood pressure medicine as high blood pressure runs in my family. But boy, was I wrong. I got my blood work back, and it was not good. My white blood count was through the roof – I knew that was not a good sign. The next day I went back to my PCP. During my physical exam, she noticed a lump on my collarbone that I hadn’t and became immediately concerned. I was sent straight for a CT scan, and the rest is history.
The CT scan showed a massive 19 cm mass in my mediastinum and multiple masses near my collarbone on both sides of my neck. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Everything happened so fast. Thankfully, I was able to see my wonderful oncologist the very next day. She ordered a bone marrow biopsy and a PET scan because she was not 100% sure what it was and wanted to wait on those results. The results confirmed I had nodular sclerosis Hodgkin lymphoma and that I was about to embark on a very long, painful, and emotional journey.
I received chemotherapy every two weeks for six months. Let me tell you: unless you have personally experienced what it is like to be pumped full of poison every two weeks, then it’s hard to explain how it feels to those who haven’t experienced it. The best way I could describe it was that every two weeks I thought I was going to die, and I know that may seem morbid but I honestly did. There were nights I just knew I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. I was in so much pain and had such terrible nausea that I had to have my parents lift me out of bed to use the restroom. I was so weak from treatments that even walking to the restroom was like climbing a mountain. I lost my sense of taste for a week after each treatment, so everything I ate tasted like paper. Nothing was appetizing, and I lost around 20 pounds.
I was given so many shots and had so many blood draws throughout those six months that I lost count. Not only was I physically struggling, but mentally, I felt so broken. I had zero control over my body or what was going to happen to me. I knew I was in good hands with my oncologist, but that didn’t stop me from crying every time I had to go in for treatments. There was one treatment where I just sat in the car crying for 10 minutes because I just did not want to get chemo; I knew that the next 5-6 days following chemo were going to be so awful.
My chemo sessions took about 3-4 hours to complete, so it was nice that they allowed my parents to come up and keep me company even though I slept through most of it. Once I was given the “red devil” – the worst chemo drug that is a red color – I started to feel terrible almost immediately. I was pumped full of nausea medicine before and after my treatment. I also was given a shot to help boost my immune system while going through treatments. But that shot came with terrible bone and joint pain as a symptom. A pain that I had to endure and no medicine could really help with that pain.
People told me how “strong” and “courageous” I looked, but honestly, I was screaming inside. Cancer took all the strength and willpower I could muster to get through those six months of treatment. Once I reached the magic number of 12 completed chemo treatments, I knew I could finally breathe again. After finishing chemo, I underwent three weeks of daily radiation because the tumors in my chest were so large. That is why I was considered stage 2B for “Bulky” since one of my masses was bigger than 10cm. I would need radiation to be sure all cancer cells were obliterated. Radiation was a breeze compared to chemo. I did, however, have trouble swallowing toward the end of treatments because I received radiation around my esophagus and had to eat soft foods for a few days. I also had red, irritated skin around my chest area, but honestly, nothing I think will ever compare to how badly I felt going through chemo, so radiation was a breeze.
On December 20, 2019, I completed all of my treatments. It was the best Christmas present I could have ever asked for. I am now one-year cancer-free and have had three clean PET scans since I was first diagnosed.
Cancer was something that completely broke me, but it also gave me strength I never thought I had in me. Cancer taught me to never take your life for granted, as you never know how quickly it can change. Cancer taught me that when faced with the impossible, it is possible to overcome it. I hope my story can shed light on others going through the same thing that I went through. Was it an easy journey? Absolutely not; it still isn’t. Once you have cancer, it never “fully goes away.” To this day, I still have difficulties emotionally over how much cancer broke me, and it’s something I have to work on every single day. But I do know one thing. I knew from day one when I heard those dreadful words that I was going to fight like hell and ring that bell! And six months later, I did! Cancer did not beat me; I fought hard and came out the winner.
I pray for all who are going through this. I know the journey is long and hard but just know, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you will get there! Have faith and courage that you, too, will beat this.