Pain to Power

At age 20, most college students are settling into a certain routine, opening themselves up to a world of possibilities for the future and bonding with friends over late night stress in the library. What if that stability was rattled by something completely out of your control?

When faced with a stage III Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis just weeks after her 20th birthday, Hannah Neimy found herself in the midst of an experience that was foreign to nearly all college students around her. She discovered, though, that this isolating experience could actually bring her into a new community built around an incredibly strong bond—a community that grounds itself in the unique challenges each member faces.

Now 22, Neimy, a junior biology major, can often be spotted studying in the new Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center with her signature red lipstick on and organic chemistry homework sprawled out on a table. Before she walks into an exam, though, her encouraging self-talk may be a little different than that of her classmates’. “Hannah,” she tells herself, “you’ve literally done twelve chemo treatments; you can do an organic chemistry exam.”

Photo by Hannah Broder

It was those same chemo treatments that caused Neimy to wonder what kind of pause she would have to put on her college career: “I had to drop all of my classes, and I was essentially isolated from people my age,” Neimy said. “I had to stop doing things that normal college students would do. Instead I had to go up to New York City and get poked and prodded and get all of these tests run. That was not fun. So that was a challenge, just adjusting to that sense of ‘I’m in limbo’ basically, because I don’t really know what my life is going to be like just yet.”

While many young people struggle with their appearance and self-love, dealing with the effects of chemo brings an added challenge. Being a tired college student is one thing, but not recognizing yourself in the mirror is another story. “You don’t look really good when you’re going through chemo. You look like you’re dying, because, a little bit, you are. It was just really hard to wake up every day and see someone that I did not recognize. Over time, I adjusted to it. But initially it was like, ‘Wow, your hair is really thin today; your face is really puffy; you’ve got some serious under eye circles today.’ So that was hard, not looking like myself. It was really weird, like an identity thing almost,” Neimy said. Despite this, she learned a valuable lesson that can take others years to learn: “I have a better sense of who I am as a person as opposed to how I present myself.”

Mental challenges can be just as isolating as the physical challenges that cancer brings. “I think the hardest part of having had cancer is being done with treatment, and not being able to go to my doctor every single week and have a check-up,” Neimy said. “Having to understand that every single ache is not cancer, and that I’m actually ok, that was really hard.”

For many college students, the worst illness they’ve experienced is the flu, if that. Many cannot even begin to understand what it means to be faced with a serious illness. Neimy “spent more time dealing with the PTSD from it than [she] did with the actual treatment.” But as a result of that hardship, she came out on the other side bolder, brighter, and with an entire new “tribe” that she now helps others find.

The Boon Project–founded by Katherine Brown–began as a way to help Katherine’s twin sister, Susan Cram-Smith, “find her tribe” after she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 31. Cram-Smith, one of Neimy’s high school teachers, reconnected with Neimy after finding out about her diagnosis. “I knew about the Boon Project before it was a [nonprofit]. Susan reached out to me and talked me through a lot, she shared her experience with me. That’s one really important component of the Boon Project, is sharing experiences. So we kind of bonded over our bodies being… awful. And that led her into the idea of introducing me into the Boon Project,” she said.

Neimy is now the youngest person on the Boon Project board, as well as one of two survivors. “The young adult range is like 18-39, so I am on the lower spectrum of that. They wanted someone who had a ‘college perspective’ on the board,” she said.

As a young adult with cancer, it is uncommon to see many other young people with cancer around, whether at the doctor, in classes, or at work. Because of this, counteracting the feelings of isolation and misunderstanding is essential. Neimy focuses on this aspect as part of the Boon Project, but even before it, she felt a longing to relate this aspect of her life to others. “It always helped me to help other people. Even during treatment I found a few people that I really connected with and I’d talk to them and we’d share stories. You know, your doctor can tell you what’s gonna happen and how it’s gonna happen, but they don’t know how it feels. That’s why we want to focus on building that sense of community: because not everyone understands it unless you’ve been through it,” Neimy said.

Photo by Hannah Broder

Today, Neimy loves seeing the impact that the Boon Project has on others. She highlights members that have “really taken it to another level” when using it as a “source of friendship and community.”

The Boon Project fosters this community through a range of events, from fitness groups to just going out. “We’ve done surfing lessons to 5k practices, and we’ve actually made a ‘Cancer to 5k’ team,” Neimy said. “We do all sorts of physical activities or we just go to a bar and hang out like young adults would do, you know, without cancer.”

Maintaining some sense of normalcy can be difficult both during and after treatment.

“Adjusting to that treatment in itself, having to feel like actual death every single day and still go out and try to act my age without missing out on half a year of my life, [because] it’s such a fundamental period of time for someone to miss out on… was a challenge, trying to balance it and take care of myself at the same time,” Neimy said.

It is that balance that the Boon Project hopes to bring to any young adult feeling isolated in the face of cancer. Inside of it’s community lies unity, companionship and ultimately connections that will last a lifetime.

Facing cancer as a young adult not only brought Neimy to her place in the Boon Project, but also to what she now lays out as her life plan. “I thought of this whole experience as pushing me onto a new trajectory. I’ve always been interested in going into medical school but this really fell into my lap. It sounds weird to say cancer was a gift but, in a way, it was because I have a much clearer sense of how I want to help people,” Neimy said. So, I think about my whole experience… and if I can help someone else go through what I went through, then it’s kind of worth it. I mean, being alive is great, but helping other people really thrive through the whole thing as much as they possibly can–even if I can just help one person–would be a gift. So, that’s why I want to be a hematology oncologist.”

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