Cancer symptoms can be tricky to spot. So when Laura Balazs developed a persistent cough, she chalked it up to the chilly air at her workplace. But the true cause was much more upsetting: non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Balazs, 24, was working at a bakery in England that blasted the air conditioning in the summer of 2018. But Balazs’ mother didn’t think it was the air causing her cough after it continued for a couple of weeks. After her mother’s urging, the then 20-year-old musical theater student saw a doctor who diagnosed her with asthma and sent her on her way with an inhaler.
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Sadly, the intensity of her cough only grew and started to make her sick. She also started to inexplicably lose weight. And though she went to her doctor multiple times, she felt like she wasn’t being taken seriously. In October 2018, her father decided to step in and come along to her next appointment where he demanded that she be given a blood test. That’s when she received her diagnosis: non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“They tell you not to Google it,” she told The Sun. “I was in shock when I first saw what it was.”
Balazs had her first chemotherapy treatment just a month before her birthday in October.
“I was just about to turn 21 and had to start treatment,” she said. “I spent my 21st in the hospital.”
She continued her treatment into 2019, but her condition started to deteriorate after the new year.
“I just kept feeling really bad. I couldn’t get out of bed,” she said. “At first I didn’t think anything of it, then on January 2 my heart stopped because of all of the fluid that was around it.”
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In a terrifying turn of events, Balazs had to be placed in an induced coma for 20 minutes.
“When I woke I hardly recognized my family and refused to speak English to the nurses, only my native language Hungarian,” she said.
Fast forward to May 2019, and Balazs underwent seven days of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Then she had to have echo scans to monitor her heart and nearby blood vessels every six months. But even after treatment was over, Balazs struggled to let go of the routine of it all.
“After I had chemo I felt really anxious, it’s like you’re in this bubble and then it just bursts,” she explained. “I kept worrying about everything. When you’re in hospital you have all of the doctors and nurses with you.
“I went back to our family home and my mum took some time off work to be with me and her and my sister arranged their shifts so that someone was always at home with me.”
Her family was there for her in her time of need, but Balazs also found support throughout her cancer journey with the Teenage Cancer Trust – a UK charity dedicated to supporting young people with cancer. She attended virtual events that helped her make valuable connections during her time of struggle.
“It’s a great way of keeping in touch with people from the unit too and being able to speak to people outside of my family,” she said. “We have a group message, so I chat to the other young people on there.”
“[The youth support coordinator] also calls and texts me regularly to see how I am doing, and I know she is always there if I need someone to chat to.”
Understanding Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
Lymphoma, in general, is a type of blood cancer. Blood cancers can affect the bone marrow, blood cells, lymph nodes and other parts of the lymphatic system. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society reports that every 3 minutes, one person in the U.S. is diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma.
More specifically, lymphoma is a cancer of the immune system that begins in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphoma begins when lymphocytes develop a genetic mutation that makes them multiply much faster than normal. This mutation also forces older cells that would normally die to stay alive. From there, the quickly multiplying lymphocytes collect and build up in your lymph nodes, the small glands in your neck, armpits, and other parts of your body
What Kind of Lymphoma Do You Have? Why Your Type Matters
There are more than 40 different types of the disease, but Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are the main two sub-categories with the latter being much more common. The type of white blood cells linked to the disease determines the distinction. If doctors are unable to detect the Reed-Sternberg cell – a giant cell derived from B lymphocytes – then it is categorized as Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
You might be at a higher risk for lymphoma if you:
- Have been infected with the HIV or Epstein-Barr virus
- Had an organ transplant
- Have a family history of lymphoma
- Have been treated with radiation or chemotherapy drugs for cancer in the past
- Have an autoimmune disease
Getting to Know The Symptoms
One thing to note about lymphomas is that this type of cancer often creeps in quietly, without symptoms. And even when symptoms do show up, they don’t necessarily point directly to cancer. In a previous interview, Dr. Elise Chong, a medical oncologist at Penn Medicine, explained that lymphoma symptoms could be difficult to detect.
Sneaky Lymphoma Symptoms Often Lead to a Late Diagnosis
“The symptoms of lymphoma, especially if you have a low-grade lymphoma, often are no symptoms,” Dr. Chong explained. “People say, but I feel completely fine, and that’s very normal.”
People with lymphoma do not always have symptoms, but common ones are:
- Swollen glands in your neck, armpit or groin
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Feeling tired
- Swelling in your stomach
No matter what, it’s important to communicate anything usual happening to your body with your doctor. Even if there’s nothing to worry about, it’s good to rule out the possibility of more serious issues.
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