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Pathways to Discovery: Winter 2013

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Young Woman's Experience with Hodgkin Lymphoma Changes Her Outlook on Life

In 2005, Cheryl Albovias, then 31, became so sick that her doctor in Orland Park suspected she had either pneumonia or cancer. She was referred to associate professor of medicine Sonali Smith, MD, at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC).

A biopsy confirmed that the source of Albovias’ symptoms was Hodgkin lymphoma. A large tumor in her chest had already spread to her neck. Albovias’ initial reaction was shock and fear, as her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 years earlier and she had lost other relatives to cancer. “Once you hear cancer, you think of it as being really negative,” she recalled.

Without lifesaving treatment, Albovias was facing a potentially fatal outcome within a matter of months. She experienced a range of emotions. As someone fully engaged in her career and preparing to buy a house, she felt that the cancer diagnosis came just as she was beginning her life.

“I felt a lot of regret,” she said. “There were still so many things I hadn’t yet accomplished.” Albovias was so nervous that she broke out into hives on the first day of chemotherapy treatment, but she soon began to feel more at ease. She credits this to the nurses who patiently explained everything to her, her friends and family who remained by her side, and the team of volunteers who encouraged her.

Fortunately, cure rates for Hodgkin lymphoma are as high as 70 to 80 percent, making it one of the most treatable cancers. After 6 cycles of chemotherapy, Albovias was amazed to see the image showing that her tumor had vanished. In most cases, radiation therapy would be the next step; however, Albovias’ lymphoma had responded so favorably that Dr. Smith and her colleagues recommended against further treatment.

“We really try to avoid unnecessary radiation therapy in younger patients to protect them from long-term complications, such as infertility and increased risk for therapy-related cancers,” said Dr. Smith. At the UCCCC, ongoing studies are evaluating the long-term effects of treatment on cancer survivors. This knowledge helps physicians consider all factors that may affect a patient’s quality of life before choosing a course of therapy.

Now 38, Albovias remains cancer free, but her experience left her with a newfound appreciation for life. She created a list of what she wants to accomplish during her lifetime and has been working toward crossing each item off. Her career has taken a backseat as she spends her time visiting with friends and family, reading books, learning to cook, and traveling to new destinations. She recently zip-lined in Hawaii, overcoming a lifelong fear of heights. She also offers support and encouragement to others battling cancer and has become involved in fundraising for cancer research.

“I don’t think I would take any part of the experience back,” she said. “It opened up my eyes and changed my life in a positive direction.”

Ernst Lengyel