Vanessa Laven

I had bronchitis while on vacation. I saw a doctor immediately and I was given antibiotics and an inhaler and I soon started to feel better. Two weeks after coming home, I felt like I had it again. My doctor assured me that I had a viral infection that would soon pass. It didn’t feel like it was passing. I still had trouble breathing. And every week it got worse.

I went back to the doctor three times with the same two complaints: trouble breathing and a deep cough. At each visit he assured me that I had summer allergies. He kept sending me home without a firm diagnosis and no testing.

May turned into September. I realized I spent the whole summer coughing and gasping for air. I couldn’t walk across my small apartment without having to stop to catch my breath. I had to stop cooking, cleaning and taking martial arts classes because I coughed constantly.

When the summer ended and my ‘summer allergies’ didn’t go away, I was frustrated. I didn’t feel like I was getting any answers and my gut was telling me that there was more to it than mere allergies. I decided to go for a second opinion and see another doctor. My new doctor admitted that she wasn’t sure what was going on so she sent me for a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. I got it done the next day and that afternoon I was called into her office.

The x-ray, she explained, showed that my lungs were fine but my heart was enlarged. She scheduled an appointment for an echocardiogram the next morning with a cardiologist. My doctor reassured me that it was most likely nothing serious.

At the cardiologist’s office, the technician performed the echo and almost immediately called for someone else to look at the monitor. They were very concerned about the amount of fluid around my heart and told me to go the hospital IMMEDIATELY to get the fluid removed. They gave my doctor the heads up and reassured me that this was no big deal and that it’s a very routine procedure. My husband was worried but I said to him, “Well at least it isn’t cancer.”

Famous last words.

I met the cardiac (heart) surgeon and he talked us through the surgery. The plan was to do a pericardial window, which lets the extra fluid around my heart drain into my abdomen where it would be reabsorbed by my body. I would be discharged from the hospital the next day with orders to take it easy for the following two weeks until the incision fully healed. It seemed pretty easy as far as surgeries go.

That night, I woke up from anesthesia and I said to my husband “I’m alive, and it’s not cancer.” He started to sob and says, “No Vanessa, you do have cancer. The extra fluid was caused by a tumor around your heart. You have lymphoma.” I blinked a few times, and said, “Don’t cry. I’ll be OK” and passed out.

“Looking back, I know that I may not have needed such an intense treatment plan if my first doctor had not written off my initial persistent health change—coughing—as just allergies.”

I stayed in the hospital for a few days before meeting with my oncology team, where I got my official diagnosis. I had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, stage 2. The tumor itself was about 23cm (the size of a grapefruit) and it was pressing against my heart and lungs and causing all of my health changes. My situation was dire and I needed to immediately start chemotherapy.

Because the tumor was so large and aggressive, my oncologist decided I needed aggressive treatment. I had six rounds of chemo over four months. Chemotherapy isn’t fun, but when I look at the whole picture I’m glad I made the sacrifice. In the end it saved my life, which made any side effects totally worth it. Looking back, I know that I may not have needed such an intense treatment plan if my first doctor had not written off my initial persistent health change—coughing—as just allergies.


  • trouble breathing
  • deep cough