Students battle cancer along with rigors of college

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Shortly after John Kerry and John Edwards conceded the presidential election to George W. Bush on Nov. 3, the bad news for the Edwards family continued; Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the former Democratic vice presidential candidate, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

After ignoring a lump in her breast during the heat of the campaign, Edwards was eventually diagnosed as invasive ductal cancer, the most common type of breast cancer. “Elizabeth is as strong a person as I’ve ever known. Together our family will beat this,” John Edwards said of his wife.

Approximately half of all American men and one-third of American women will have some type of cancer at some point during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. But because 77 percent of all cancers diagnosed are in people 55 and older, it is seldom associated with college students.

But some students across the country battle cancer and the rigors of college. “I don’t know anyone else my age with cancer. It’s pretty rare to have cancer at this age. Most cancer patients are either kids or elderly,” said Mira Elias, a student at Brandeis University.

Elias was diagnosed this past July with Leukemia at the age of 19. Now 20-years-old, Elias was forced to take the semester off in order to receive chemotherapy. The chemo kills off the bone marrow which produces red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. “Because I’m not producing white blood cells, I’m extremely susceptible to illnesses that no one else would ever get, so I can’t be around people, everything around me has to be super clean and sterile, and especially the food requirements would make it just impossible to be at school,” Elias explained.

Elias plans to return to Brandeis this spring to start her junior year.

“Brandeis has been great about everything, very supportive, and very willing to work with me to make my transition back easier,” she said.

In a mere five months, Elias’s life has been completely transformed. “I absolutely think things will be different when I go back to school in January. I am coming back with this whole new experience that few if any of my peers have ever dealt with, and it has given me a whole new perspective on life,” she said.

Students in similar situations, echo Elias’s sentiments.

Jill Marshall was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer at 17. Marshall, who just turned 20 last month is now a freshman at Emmanuel College in Boston. Even though she had two grandparents die of cancer, the disease still seemed foreign to her. “I always thought of cancer as something that happened to old people, I never imagined that it could happen to me,” she said.

Now in remission, Marshall still has appointments with an oncologist every four months. “I might be a little more focused and serious about life than a lot of other people my age,” she said. “Having cancer makes you grow up quick an you realize how important it is to not waste any time in life.”

In 2004, approximately 1.4 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed and about 564,000 cancer deaths will occur in the United States. The overall survival rate for all types of cancer is 63 percent. Today, there are more than nine million cancer survivors in the United States, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “I’d like people to realize that cancer does happen to people our age, so often we think of it as something that only happens to older people and something that could never happen to us,” Marshall said. “Also people should realize that we might have been through more health-wise but we still want the same things out of life that everyone else does.”

Elias and Marshall both said that the one of the best forms of support they’ve received has been from other students in similar situations. Both frequent the forums at planetcancer.org, a Web site dedicated to young adults with cancer.

“My friends are great about listening to my cancer and chemo related issues but they just don’t understand them. I also feel like it’s burdening to them to have to hear about all of this when they are trying to deal with their own stuff, cancer is pretty depressing,” Elias explained. “When I read the forums at Planet Cancer, it’s like reading my diary or something because the people on there are all dealing with this, have all been through similar things, and they just know, they just understand all of it.”

After all Elias has been through with cancer in the last five months, she has decided she wants to become either an oncologist or a pediatric oncologist.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to show them that cancer isn’t a death sentence and that they can get through this and have a wonderful life,” she said. “I can’t imagine going off and doing something not cancer related with the rest of my life.”

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