By Dana Mendes
Like many high school students, I was eager to start a new chapter of my life after graduating in 2015. I had committed to play field hockey at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, that fall, and spent the summer working out alongside my new teammates – determined to prove myself on the field and in the classroom.
Twice during this period I felt an abrupt bout of fatigue and nausea, but didn’t think anything of it. I had a long history of aplastic anemia, a bone marrow deficiency, and figured the excessive heat and intense conditioning were behind the episodes.
I was wrong.
On Aug. 15, the day before moving onto campus, my parents told me the results from a precautionary bone marrow biopsy. I had a condition called myelodysplastic syndrome, which often leads to leukemia. I decided with my doctors and parents to defer my admission to Assumption until the next academic year and spend the upcoming months preparing for treatment that would include intensive chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.
College, and field hockey, would be put on hold.
I wasn’t angry or frustrated. I didn’t question “why me?” But I was deeply shaken with sorrow. I’m pretty sure when most people are told they have a precancerous diagnosis their immediate thoughts aren’t entirely of school and sports. Mine were.
Regardless of what I was thinking or feeling, I knew I needed to keep a positive mindset. August to November was filled with hospital visits, bone marrow biopsies, and numerous other procedures. When December came I was officially admitted to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, where I spent the next four weeks – including Christmas – as an inpatient before and after my bone marrow transplant. My sister, Bianca, turned out to be a perfect donor match, and agreed to give me this most precious gift.
I was discharged from the hospital on Jan. 1, 2016, and spent the next eight months in isolation, rebuilding my suppressed immune system and gaining weight back. Although chemo had stripped me of my muscle, agility, endurance, and some coordination, you could still find me in my icy driveway, field hockey stick in hand, hitting a ball back and forth.
While I was eager to experience new things and make new friendships away at college, I was blessed to do the same during my recovery. Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s is not only a hospital, but a home. Although medications, injections, blood work, and many other procedures continue to be a big part of my routine there, the heartfelt, uplifting, and empowering outreach from staff and caretakers brings great warmth and healing to my family – and I’ve created meaningful friendships that will last long after my time in clinic ends. Teammates I had just been getting to know also sent me a steady stream of cards, emails, and support during my treatment.
My nurse practitioner officially cleared me to play sports and attend school in July, and I was more than ready. Just like treatment, field hockey constantly pushed my comfort zone – a test of my mind and body adapting to a new environment, team, routine, and goals; essentially a new life. My sole focus the first season wasn’t on playing time or a starting spot, but on rebuilding muscle, skill, endurance, adapting to college-level intensity, and enjoying the company of teammates whose support and positivity had empowered me through such a challenging time.
Though impatience with my slow progress has been an ongoing frustration, I’ve realized that taking ownership of my health involves being honest and accepting when to give myself a break, rather that constantly pushing to prove myself to others. This winter my team has transitioned into our off-season training, with lifting and conditioning practices, and I look forward to training with great excitement and anticipation.
Academically, college is an opportunity I’ve waited more than a year for, so classes, exams, assignments, studying, and even waking up for 6:00 a.m. practices are things I humbly appreciate. Coursework is manageable, new friendships are made on a daily basis, and opportunity seems limitless. During my recovery I expanded my artistic horizons through watercolor, and at school I’ve created a growing business of inspirational cards, bookmarks, canvas prints, and spiritual devotions. Though I don’t intend to be an entrepreneur at 19 or a millionaire by 20, I feel blessed that my journey has inspired purpose and perspective for my life.
At first, moving onto campus caused “nervous excitement” for my family and caretakers at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. I had been in recovery for just eight months, rather than the typical nine to twelve, and since college is a petri dish, there were many risks. But with every checkup, bottle of hand sanitizer, and disinfectant, my new immune system has held its own. I’m very proud of it – and myself.
Read more about Dana’s diagnosis and early treatment, with insights from her family and caregivers.