After a dusty trip to Coachella, Richelle’s cough wouldn’t go away. Then she got a shocking diagnosis.
Richelle Dalere can pinpoint exactly when her strange cough began. She was partying with her sister at the Coachella Music Festival, a present to herself for her 27th birthday. All that sand in the desert was impossible not to inhale, so it didn’t seem too surprising when both sisters developed a cough. But when they returned to New Jersey, where Richelle works as a research administrator at the Rutgers Cancer Institute, her sister’s cough improved while hers worsened.
“It got to point where I would feel super winded just walking down the street, not even on an incline,” she remembers.
Her internist figured she had a nasty infection, so he prescribed cough medicine, antibiotics, and steroids, and ordered a chest X-ray. That revealed the next red flag: enlarged lymph nodes. A follow-up visit with a pulmonologist yielded no clarification. All her tests — for valley fever sarcoidosis, pneumonia, and asthma — turned up negative.
Yet I was still coughing up a lung,” Richelle recalls.
The doctors needed more invasive testing to figure out her case. They attempted several different biopsies, trying to get a sample of her enlarged lymph node tissue through her airway and via a needle. But each time, the result came back “not definitive.”
As her frustration mounted, her symptoms worsened. She knew she needed answers — and fast. It was the middle of summer, and she could no longer play tennis or be active outdoors like usual. By then, she could barely walk without coughing.
With nowhere to turn, she consulted a doctor at the Cancer Institute where she worked. He recommended an even more invasive procedure called an open biopsy, where an incision is made at the base of the neck to directly access the lymph nodes. She woke up from the procedure to find a 1.5-inch slice across her neck, and immediately started to bawl.
But the most traumatic part was yet to come. A week later, the results came back: stage 2A Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I was set on it being anything else except cancer,” she says. “It seemed really surreal. My family and friends and I went through the five stages of grief, starting with denial.”
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a malfunction the immune system that occurs in about 1 in 100,000 people. According to Richelle’s oncologist at the Rutgers Cancer Institute, Dr. Roger Strair, each of us makes 500 billion different immune cells per day, which are designed to attack intruders. But occasional mistakes can occur in the complicated DNA processes that generate those cells. 99.9999 percent of the time, those mistakes cause the abnormal cells to die.
A fraction of the time, though, those troublesome cells happen to survive.
“Then,” Dr. Strair says, “all of a sudden, you have immune cell thinking they are attacking an infection, but they’re really not. They keep on dividing.”
As Richelle soon learned, the reason for her disease was just plain bad luck. She had no family history of lymphoma, nor had she done anything to bring it on.
“Still,” she says, “it was completely out of left field.”
A bone marrow biopsy showed that it had not spread into her bone marrow, but she still needed to undergo 12 chemotherapy treatments, which began at the end of August. So far, she’s gotten through nine. Every other week, she goes to the clinic and sits with an IV infusion for several hours. Then she takes the next few days off while she copes with nausea, achiness, and fatigue, but is back at work the following Monday.
“I’m better off working because the busier I am, the more distracted I am from cancer,” she says. “One thing I’ve learned about having cancer is that when you get hung up on it, it will eat you alive. You can’t let it define you.”
Just as her mindset is staying strong, her body is fighting back. A scan in October revealed that one of her enlarged lymph nodes had completely vanished, and another one had shrunk from 6 centimeters to 6 millimeters, a normal size.
Her prognosis is excellent — the cure rate for Hodgkin’s is 85 to 95 percent.
“If there was a cancer you want to have, this is it, so technically I kind of won the cancer jackpot,” she says with a laugh.
As she nears the end of her treatment — her last chemo treatment is at the end of January — she’s preparing a big vacation with her family to celebrate being cancer-free. Top on her bucket list is a visit to Alaska to see the Northern Lights this summer. It seems only fitting that after so much darkness, she’ll get to see 24 hours of sunlight.
“Life is all about adapting to new situations,” she says. “The best you can do is keep striving and keep evolving. Keep striving to be happy.”