Student stays at Duke despite illness
Between work, sports and environmental science classes, sophomore Sarah Stanczyk can barely find the time to deal with her latest challenge: chemotherapy.
Stanczyk was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma early this year. Despite her diagnosis, she has chosen to spend the Spring semester on campus and will undergo six months of chemotherapy at the Duke Cancer Center. Stanczyk said the first sign that something was wrong was that she would routinely contract minor illnesses during her freshman year.
During a visit with her athletic doctor last Fall, Stanczyk, a varsity rower, mentioned that she had had persistent swelling in her lymph nodes. After an initial x-ray to rule out the possibility of pneumonia, Stanczyk was brought to the hospital for additional tests.
“I asked what they were looking for,” Stanczyk said. “They wouldn’t tell me, but they said I had abnormalities and they didn’t want to jump to conclusions.”
Later that day she was told she had Hodgkin lymphoma.
“Apparently I’ve had it for about five years,” Stanczyk said. “It was a huge shock.”
The decision to remain on campus was an obvious one, Stanczyk added—she hopes to keep things “as normal as possible” during her treatment.
“At home, my friends are away at college and my parents are working,” Stanczyk said. “I’d literally just be sitting in my house moping around and watching Netflix, and I think that would make me sicker. Here, I have a huge support group. I’m taking a couple of classes. I’m working. I just want to keep it normal.”
A number of Duke students have dealt with serious illnesses in the past, said Amy Powell, associate dean of students and director of case management. The Office of Case Management provides outreach, advocacy and resources to students who are in need of support due to mental or physical illnesses. Powell added that it is not unusual for students to continue their schoolwork through their illness.
“We have students who decide to take some time off to fully address whatever issues they might be experiencing,” Powell said. “But we also have some students…who are able to function with appropriate accommodations and assistance and thrive while they’re here.”
Former students who have beaten cancer have reached out to Stanczyk. Their support has helped her prepare for what is in store, Stanczyk said.
Stanczyk said the experience has helped her discover new career goals. Originally pre-med, she decided to change her program to explore other options.
“When I went to get surgery, I had a really good experience with the nurses,” Stanczyk said. “I might want to stay in the medical field, but maybe not as a doctor. I realized I really want to do something where I can work with patients.”
Several people close to Stanczyk are planning fundraising events to help her through her treatment, said junior Aly Breuer, a friend of Stanczyk’s. Most recently, the student organization Blue Devils vs. Cancer hosted their annual charity event Sweet Night in Durham. This year, they donated a portion of the proceeds to Stanczyk’s family.
“Everyone’s been really supportive,” Stanczyk said. “Even something as small as running to get me a milkshake when I don’t feel well—it’s only been a couple of weeks and I’m already overwhelmed by the Duke community.”
Stanczyk said she began chemotherapy last week and noted the experience has been trying.
“There’s good days and bad days,” Stanczyk said. “The biggest thing about treatment is that I’ll be really tired all the time. I’ve already noticed that I have to sit down and take a break just walking to class.”
Still, Stanczyk said she remains positive.
“She’s responded to this better than I imagined anyone could,” Breuer said. “That’s a huge testament to her will and her fight and her commitment to kicking this thing’s butt and doing it with a smile on her face.”