Alysson Wittmeyer was 17 years old and in her first semester at the University of Iowa in the Fall of 2015.
She was studying enterprise leadership/business and preparing for the upcoming rowing season when she landed in the ER the week before Thanksgiving break. Her next couple days were a blur of tests and a PET Scan, which discovered a large mass.
After a biopsy of the lymph nodes around her collar bone, it was confirmed; Wittmeyer had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
There was no doubt in Wittmeyer’s mind that she would be going home to Elgin, Ill., to get treatment locally. She knew if she had to have cancer, at least this was one which had a treatment that was proven to work.
Her mindset: Just do it. So she packed up her dorm room and moved back home.
Wittmeyer met with Dr. Ginny Kamboj, medical oncologist at Advocate Sherman Hospital, to have a consultation and answer any questions she or her parents had.
“I knew Alysson would be fine and that I could get her through the treatment, but I was still hoping and praying everything would go smoothly,” states Dr. Kamboj.
“In cancer care, you are treating the whole family, not just the cancer. The patient and parents are fearful of the unknown. Our role is to guide them and help navigate the difficult roads. Needless to say, this humbling role keeps us grounded and focused on doing our best for the sake of the patient and the family.”
After Wittmeyer had her chemotherapy port put in on New Year’s Day, she started chemotherapy at Sherman Hospital’s Cancer Care Center. Her mom, Sarah, who is a case manager for Advocate Health Care, came with her to every treatment. Her dad, Jay Wittmeyer, visited during lunch hours, and sometimes her siblings, best friends and others came.
Every other Tuesday for six months, Wittmeyer was at the Center for her 12 chemotherapy treatments from 11 am – 4 pm.
“She was the youngest patient we had seen in our cancer care center,” says Joni Courtney, one of her chemotherapy registered nurses. “She was our baby, because we saw our children in her and thought, ‘This could be our kid.’”
Wittmeyer tried several different options to try to lessen the effects of her treatment, nausea and anxiety. She tried drinking pickle juice to lessen that taste of Adriamycin, chewing ice for mouth sores, applying lotion on her blankets to not smell hand sanitizer and using color therapy to check out mentally.
Her mom would rub her legs and feet and read books to distract her.
Gaining weight and losing hair were the toughest hardships Wittmeyer had to experience. Chemotherapy requires being pumped with saline and steroids, which cause hunger cravings.
Because of her hair loss, Wittmeyer kept cutting her hair shorter until she went to a wig. Her happiest moment was when her hair grew back and she was able to braid her hair.
After therapy, Wittmeyer and her mother made a long list of all the good things that came out of her diagnosis and treatment. She shares a few below:
- The nurses: Joni Courtney, Janette Garcia, Crystal Michaels, Cheri Novak and the whole team. She says, “Even though this was one of the hardest experiences in my life; my nurses made it better. They held my hand every step of the way, and it was one of the highlights of my treatment. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
- Connecting with more people and talking with strangers about their conditions
- Discovering the Keto Diet, a low-carb, high-fat lifestyle that does not allow sugar
- An internship during treatment at Lakeside Arts Park in Crystal Lake, which she could not have had as a rower
- Amazing support from the University of Iowa, coaches, staff, medical staff, etc.
- Gaining knowledge and confidence in the power of prayer through her faith and church family
Now, 18 months later, Wittmeyer is back to her fit rower physique and only comes back to the cancer care center for her six-month check-ups on summer and winter breaks.
“Every follow-up appointment, we check a patient’s bloodwork, complete a physical exam that entails checking nodal areas, the neck, under the armpits, liver and spleen and so forth,” mentions Dr. Kamboj, who adds, “Alysson is very ticklish, so I have to switch up the order when I exam her each time.”
Thankfully, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is very curable, though one of the hardest treatments because of the side effects.
Low blood counts can be a side effect, but they are carefully monitored and treated and should not be a deterrent to getting treatment. Dr. Kamboj shares that after remission is documented on scans, the first five years after this cancer’s treatment is considered ‘remission’, but after that, it is considered cured.
“Seeing Alysson confident and thriving validates what we do every day,” shares Crystal Michels, one of Alysson’s main chemotherapy nurses. “Seeing her grow up each time we see her brings joyful tears to our eyes.”
Wittmeyer’s cancer care nurse goes on to share that because of their experience with Wittmeyer, several of the cancer care center nurses are in their third year of attending Cal’s Angels Gala to support pediatric cancer awareness, funding research and granting wishes.