Rachel Murphy-Banks, diagnosed at 25

I knew something was wrong but it still took multiple doctor visits and nine months for me to get diagnosed.

I was 24, living at home in a suburb of New York City and had been at my job for two years. Which is why I remember so clearly the night I met up with some college friends in the city and experienced a sharp, piercing pain in the center of my back after enjoying a couple of drinks. It was the first time I had felt pain after having a drink but it wasn’t the last. Over the next few months the piercing pain appeared in my chest after a sip of wine at a wine tasting, immediately after a few sips of a fruity drink while out to dinner, and after half a glass of champagne at a friend’s graduation reception. The pain radiated up my neck and down my arms. It didn’t happen every time I had a drink and as I didn’t drink frequently I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. After the intense pain I experienced after a cocktail to celebrate my 25th birthday I pretty much gave up drinking alcohol.

When the pain in my chest that seemed to be caused by alcohol eventually settled in my chest and wouldn’t leave even though I had stopped drinking I went to my mom’s general family practitioner, as I didn’t have a doctor of my own. The doctor suggested I might be allergic to alcohol and did a blood test. I thought it was strange to suddenly develop an allergy and didn’t really think that was the problem, but I didn’t know what the problem was.

“My family was concerned, my friends were concerned, and my co-workers were concerned and told me I looked tired a lot… but cancer was never on our radar.”

I went back to a partner of the general practitioners with the same chest complaints and had a chest x-ray and was told it was clear. I went to a chiropractor and on their recommendation raised the head of my bed a few inches and took aloe vera pills. I saw a gastroenterologist who suggested I get a sonogram of my gall bladder but I sensed that wasn’t going to solve the problem and I wasn’t willing to pay the $250 deductible to go through with it. I knew something was wrong because the pain in my chest wasn’t going away no matter what I tried. I started taking Tylenol every four hours, was prescribed Celebrex, a muscle relaxer, but I was still waking up in the middle of the night due to pain. My family was concerned, my friends were concerned, and my co-workers were concerned and told me I looked tired a lot… but cancer was never on our radar.

In the fall I developed a cough. It sounded horrible but it didn’t really hurt. A co-worker came up to me and said my cough sounded like one she had heard before, when a fellow co-worker had been diagnosed with cancer years earlier. Her comments didn’t make me think cancer might be the cause of my suffering, but I made another doctor’s appointment. My doctor ordered a CAT scan. At first she wanted a scan of my neck because of the radiating pain I had described but I felt the problem was in my chest. I told her I didn’t think it was my neck and she changed the CAT scan to my chest. I resigned myself to the $250 CAT scan co-pay and scheduled an appointment before work at the end of October. When I checked my voicemail messages at lunch later that day, I learned something had shown up on the scan. It was a tumor, most likely lymphoma. A needle biopsy didn’t work, but after a surgical biopsy it was confirmed that I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I was very lucky with my diagnosis, Hodgkin’s lymphoma stage I. Even though I instinctively knew from the beginning something was wrong, I minimized my pain to family and friends, put off going back to the doctor even though I was in a lot of pain, and had the unfortunate experience of going to doctors who missed the classic, but rare, alcohol intolerance symptom of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and who seemed not to have cancer as an explanation on their radar either. My treatment was 12 cycles of chemotherapy over the course of 6 months.

One of the greatest impacts of my cancer experience has been learning the essential lesson of communicating and advocating for myself in regards to my health. And to relish the sun on my face, watch the clouds in the sky and to notice the cracks in the sidewalks.

Symptoms

  • sharp pain popping up around the body after consuming alcohol
  • pain persisted in chest after not consuming alcohol
  • deep cough