Alyssa Ywuc was a 23-year-old nursing student when she was diagnosed with leukemia. After seeing first-hand the work of oncology nurses as a patient, she decided to specialize in oncology nursing. We talked with Alyssa about both sides of the cancer experience – her time as a patient and her future career as a caregiver.
How were you first diagnosed with leukemia?
On October 1, 2011, my best friend and I were watching her nieces. I picked up the 1-year-old and I suddenly felt my heart literally beating out of my chest. I quickly put her down and sat for a minute. Being a senior in Northeastern University’s nursing program, I knew immediately to check my pulse. My normal pulse was around 60 beats per minute, but that day, my pulse was 120.
My best friend drove me to the emergency room. I had a fever and my heart rate was 196. The nurses and doctors performed tests on me then transferred me to another hospital – thinking I had a heart problem. Once at the other hospital, the doctor came in (we were just expecting him to introduce himself) and he starts talking about oncology and said there’s a good chance I had leukemia. My family and I were blown away.
The next day I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and transferred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Because I had been healthy my entire life, this was a shock to everyone.
How have you managed the last year of diagnosis and treatment?
The past 12 months have been challenging, but I have learned so much about myself and the type of nurse I want to become. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that I was diagnosed with leukemia for a reason as well. Before my diagnosis, I felt that I was invincible; nothing bad could ever happen to me. Now, I don’t take a single day for granted. I know how very precious life is and how important all of my family and friends are.
Dana-Farber means so much to me. I owe my life to them, literally. I feel so lucky to live close to the most amazing hospitals in Boston. I am currently participating in a study along with my treatment, and I hope that all of the research that the doctors are doing will help future patients.
What are three words that you would use to describe being a patient at Dana-Farber?
Appreciative, inspired, and positive. Being diagnosed with cancer is something that everyone hopes never happens to them; however, the experience I have had with Dana Farber has been nothing but positive. The staff puts in extra effort to explain everything to me so I know exactly what to expect during different procedures and stages of my treatment.
What advice would you give to a newly diagnosed cancer patient?
Treasure every day. Enjoy the good days and know that the bad days won’t last too long; you will get through them. Don’t be afraid and ashamed to wear gloves and a mask out in public – especially during the beginning parts of treatment. Your health comes before any of the stares and comments that other people might have. Dana Farber is the absolute best place to be treated for cancer; you are in the right place.
One of the things that helped me the most was to keep my sense of humor during my treatment. Cancer is a serious disease, but I believe that you still have to be yourself during the treatment. Continuing my education during treatment gave me something else to focus on other than being sick.
What inspired you to become an oncology nurse?
Since I was young, I wanted to be a nurse, but all through nursing school I kept going back and forth between which type of nurse I wanted to be. I can now say that without a doubt I want to become an oncology nurse. I used to picture cancer patients as depressed and sad all the time. I now know that they aren’t different and are so appreciative for their treatment and their lives. The nurses, doctors and staff at both Brigham and Women’s Hospital and at Dana-Farber – and especially the staff on Yawkey 8 — have been beyond caring and compassionate to me. I aspire to be just like each and every one of them.
This spring I took three required classes and I was even able to walk with my class at graduation this past May (even though I received a blank diploma). My “graduation day” for Northeastern University was on a morning of a chemo appointment. When I came to Dana Farber for my appointment, one of the nurse’s aides directed me to “my” room. The room was decorated with graduation window decals, balloons, a cake, and a graduation stuffed animal dog with signatures and notes on it from all the staff. I couldn’t believe all that my nurse and the staff had done for me. I will finish my final class (my senior practicum) in the spring and will be able to get my official diploma in May.