Tackling College, Marathons, and Multiple Myeloma

May 24, 2017

By Ethan Hawes

Ethan on treatment day

“Having cancer in college doesn’t seem real.” That was my first thought when I received what would become life-changing news at the age of 22 as a senior at the University of Maine (Orono). My body went numb and tears started to form when my doctor told me I had multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer predominately found in people over the age of 65. [Less than one percent of multiple myeloma cases are diagnosed in people younger than 35.] On that infamous July day in 2013, I went from a normal college student to an asterisk whose life was suddenly tipped upside down.

A few months prior to my diagnosis, while studying abroad in Spain, I felt a sharp, aching pain in my right hip region while training for and running the Madrid marathon. Each mile dragged on as I limped my way across the finish line. The pain was excruciating, but the blissful joy of accomplishing my goal masked any ailments. This was the last running I would do for quite some time, even though the most grueling of marathons was just around the corner.

A few months after returning home, I finally went in for an X-ray of my hip. When the doctor told me the neck of my femur was eroding and there was a fist-sized tumor in its place, I couldn’t believe it. I listened from a distance as the doctor said the tumor was potentially cancerous, as though I was looking in on someone else’s life rather than living my own. Quickly, I was brought back down to earth and my fight or flight reflexes went into overdrive.

Where earlier I had been focused on achieving my marathon goal, my diagnosis became my new focus in life. I quickly began an array of treatments at the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center for my multiple myeloma, a disease that was completely foreign to me. I started with an intensive 10-day course of radiation followed by hip surgery, during which they placed a dynamic hip-screw going up my femur into my hip region. Then, on October 1, 2013, I began a three month course of chemotherapy known as RVD: Revlimid, Velcade, and Decadron. After another three months of maintenance therapy, all while I continued to attend class at the University of Maine, I was ready to embark on the most difficult journey yet: a stem cell transplant.

Ethan on marathon day
Ethan on marathon day

My stem cell transplant in June 2014 wiped away all of my white blood cells, essentially giving me the immune system a newborn baby. I was quarantined for two weeks as I anxiously awaited the return of some immune function. A week after I was cleared to go home, I became seriously ill with a fever and what turned out to be pneumonia. The doctors were very candid with me when they told me the seriousness of the matter; this was probably the scariest moment of my entire cancer experience.  I was at my lowest of lows both physically and emotionally.

Fortunately, while cancer has left me vulnerable and exposed, I made it across the finish line of this marathon, too, and I am now three months into remission. If there’s one thing that I learned from running a marathon with the unfriendly, hidden company of a malignant tumor, it’s that I, and anyone else who is unlucky enough to be diagnosed with cancer, can do anything. Cancer can be beaten in both the body and the mind. I’m looking forward to ending my experience with cancer on a high note, finishing my last semester of college in spring 2015 and completing another marathon – cancer-free this time – in the near future.