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Cancer at 20: Bangor woman urges young adults to take suspicious growths seriously

Posted July 22, 2013, at 10:10 a.m.
Last modified July 22, 2013, at 2:03 p.m.
Tanna Jellison of Bangor found a lump on her neck that turned out to be Hodgkin's lymphoma.  At the time she was s sophmore in college.  After going through treatment she has been cancer free for three years, but she is urging other young adults to take cancer seriously.
Tanna Jellison of Bangor found a lump on her neck that turned out to be Hodgkin's lymphoma. At the time she was s sophmore in college. After going through treatment she has been cancer free for three years, but she is urging other young adults to take cancer seriously. Buy Photo

Tanna Jellison of Bangor was a sophomore at the University of Maine when she started to worry about a lump in her neck. She’d noticed it before, but the swelling suddenly grew quickly over the span of a month.

Her parents told her not to stress when Jellison, then 20, mused that the lump could be cancerous. She had no other symptoms, but Jellison was convinced she needed to visit her doctor and set up an appointment.

Within a week, Jellison was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Along with the lymph node in her neck, the cancer had spread to two lymph nodes in her chest.

As a full-time student working three jobs, her first reaction wasn’t desperation or fear.

“I honestly was like, I don’t have time for this,” Jellison said. “I have other things I need to do.”

Her parents were scared, she said, but it never occurred to Jellison that she might not survive.

“I never thought about dying, I never thought that I couldn’t beat it,” she said. “I was more mad.”

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, also known as Hodgkin’s disease, is one of two prevalent types of cancers of the lymphatic system. The other type, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is much more common.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is most often diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 and 35, and those older than 55. It’s considered one of the most curable forms of cancer, especially when diagnosed and treated early.

Today, Jellison’s glad she sought medical attention before her cancer spread further. She urged other young adults to take their health concerns seriously, rather than brush off a suspicious mole or lump. Jellison has shared her story with the 15-40 Connection, a Westborough, Mass., nonprofit working to improve teen and young adult cancer survival rates through early detection.

“It can happen to you, so don’t put it off,” she said. “The longer you put it off, the worse it could end up being.”

After eight rounds of chemotherapy and surgery on the lymph node in her neck, Jellison’s back on her feet. She graduated from UMaine in December with a degree in psychology and works in Bangor with children with special needs.

In June, Jellison, now 23, celebrated three years living cancer free.

“I’m feeling great, definitely back to 100 percent,” she said.

While she warned other young adults that cancer can strike anyone, she also stressed that the disease can often be treated and managed.

“I want people to realize that it can be cancer, but it’s not the scariest thing in the world … Look at what happened to me, and I’m fine now.”

Nationally, an estimated 11,630 new cases of cancer are expected to occur this year among children aged 15 and younger, according to the American Cancer Society. The most common childhood cancer is leukemia, followed by brain and other central nervous system tumors. Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are expected to each make up about 4 percent of cancers among children.

Survival for all invasive childhood cancers combined has improved markedly over the past 30 years as a result of new and improved treatments, according to the cancer society. The five-year survival rate among children aged 15 and under was 96 percent for Hodgkin’s lymphoma and 86 percent for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from 2002-2008, the most recent time period available.

During her treatment, Jellison, known all her life for her thick red hair, declined advice from her doctors and nurses to shave her head before the chemotherapy left her bald. She didn’t want everyone to look at her and know she had cancer, she said. Luckily, while her hair thinned, she kept much of it and wore hats to cover up a small bald spot.

“It helped me because I didn’t feel like everyone knew what was going on,” she said.

Today, she still gets a certain reaction when she runs into old teachers, friends of her parents, and others, she said. Remembering her illness, they look at her with a mix of sympathy, concern, and relief that Jellison lightheartedly describes as “cancer eyes.”

“It was three years ago, I’m fine,” she said.

While her life has returned to normal, her cancer diagnosis left its mark on Jellison’s family. Before her illness, Jellison, her parents and her two older brothers were never particularly “lovey,” she said. Now, they always make sure to say, “I love you,” she said.

“You need to just tell the ones that you love that you love them and take each day as it comes because you never know what’s going to happen,” Jellison said.

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