When junior Sarah Stanczyk first arrived at Duke her freshman year, she noticed that she was constantly fighting off colds and other sicknesses passing through campus and decided to see a doctor at her home in Grand Island, N.Y. “If something was going around, I would have it,” she recalled of her freshman year. Although she was tested for various illnesses, her physician gave her a clean bill of health.

Still, something did not feel right. Stanczyk, who was a member of the women's rowing team at the time, had difficulty doing any kind of strenuous activity.

“I was excessively tired and had trouble breathing. Exercise became abnormally strenuous for me and I could not get my stamina up, regardless of how often I worked out,” she said.

In September of her sophomore year, Stanczyk had an alarming warning that what was wrong may be more serious than she had previously thought. Unable to move her neck, Stanczyk spotted lumps that looked like golfballs along her swollen neck. She went to see a doctor, who told her this was not anything to be overly worried about.

It was not until she returned from Winter Break her Sophomore year that a medical professional at Duke would tell her that she had cancer.

“I was in total shock—I had gone to the doctor for something else when it was spotted," Stanczyk said. "The doctor heard me coughing and checked for pneumonia. I never imagined he would find lymphoma."

The doctors believe that Stanczyk had been living with cancer, active at the cellular level, for five years before her diagnosis. She was diagnosed with stage 3B Hodgkin's lymphoma. Doctors had found several tumors in her chest and fluid around her lungs.

"It’s almost as if I needed something like this to happen to help me re-examine things."—Sarah Stanczyk

Although the news was unexpected, Stanczyk was determined to finish her semester at Duke. The biology major and pre-dental student continued nearly all of her classes while undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

To balance chemotherapy with the rigors of Duke's academic life, Stanczyk dropped her extracurricular activities and withdrew from a class. Because Stanczyk was diagnosed as the drop/add period was ending, Duke told her she would have to take a W and explain it to dental schools later rather than switch into an alternate course load.

She ended up taking two one-credit courses and two half-credit house courses.

"It was really difficult trying to balance everything," she said. "Sometimes I acted like I was fine even if I really wasn't okay because I didn't want to use the excuse of being sick. A lot of times I would go out to dinner with friends or to go to class when I really should have been home sleeping."

Sarah Stanczyk lost her hair—but not her spirit—as she underwent chemotherapy at Duke.

Stanczyk's friends accompanied her to her regular chemotherapy sessions, helping to pass the time while distracting her from the often painful side effects of the treatments.

"Some of her treatments were more painful than others," said senior Aly Breuer, a close friend of Stanczyk. "But we would just catch up on school and life, trying to pass the time. We took a lot of snapchats and always ended up laughing."

Despite the pain she endured, Stanczyk continued to display a positive attitude and an appreciation for life at Duke.

“I wanted to maintain a sense of routine and to stay on campus with friends. It was also incredibly convenient to live so near to Duke Hospital where the cancer treatment is exceptional,” Stanczyk said.

With the support of her family and friends, Stancyzk had another successful semester.

“Sarah is unbelievably strong. I still cannot fathom what I would have done in the situation, but Sarah somehow managed to get through all of this while managing a full schedule,” Breuer said.

Stanczyk’s mother flew back and forth from New York for each of her treatments, while her friends proved themselves a dose of good medicine for Stanczyk even in the midst of her worst days.

“I know I could not have gotten through this without my friends. From bringing me surprises to sitting through my treatments with me, they showed me they were willing to make sacrifices to be there for me,” said Stanczyk.

Stanczyk remained active while undergoing chemotherapy. She still attended her sorority—Kappa Alpha Theta—events and even worked a part-time job as a hostess over the summer. Despite managing to maintain a typical Duke experience, her battle with lymphoma was anything but simple. Suffering from chemotherapy side effects—including a phenomenon known as “chemo brain” that causes a loss of memory and of one’s train of thought—Stanczyk underwent a great deal of pain and difficulty.

And that is where her friends and the Duke community at large made a real difference.

“In the past, I definitely underestimated the community that Duke is,” Breuer said. “But Sarah and I were continuously overwhelmed by the support we received from people reaching out to help her, especially from members of the greek community. They stepped up to help one of their own, and they were willing to contribute in any way possible, even those who may not have had any previous connection to Sarah.”

Breuer planned and executed a benefit in April to help pay for Stanczyk's medical expenses, which took place in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Various student performance groups—including Sabrosura, Duke University Improv and the Pitchforks—participated, and the Duke community came together in a time of need. In one night, the entirely student-run fundraiser collected $1,800.

“When I decided to plan the benefit for Sarah, I had been trying to think of a way to reach more of the Duke community. The student performance groups each had their own following and were able to extend the reach of the benefit to all members of the Duke community. I didn’t expect so many people to be willing to donate and help out,” Breuer said. “The whole experience has shown me just how much those who care about you can help in times of need, whether they be friends or strangers.”

The Duke's women's rowing team also contributed to these fundraising efforts by executing a bake sale in Krzyzewskiville before a Duke basketball game. Members of the team sold their own baked goods and publicly practiced on an indoor rowing machine to raise money for Stanczyk.

"The fundraiser was very successful," said senior Emily Hadley, a member of the varsity rowing team who organized the event. "Duke students were eager to contribute, but also alumni and people outside the Duke community were incredibly supportive and really wanted to help Sarah's cause. Sarah is such an enthusiastic and supportive teammate that we wanted to remind her that we would all be here for her throughout this whole ordeal."

Sarah Stanczyk and her mother pause for a picture on her last day of chemotherapy.

Stanczyk has been cancer-free for one month and counting. Her experience has given her a new perspective on the meaning of life and friendship.

“I was the type of person who always needed to be doing something, but now I am less rushed with things. I realize that I have so much time. Why not enjoy everything more?” Stanczyk reflected.

Although she was once adamant on avoiding a gap year after graduating from Duke, a year to take things more slowly is just what Stanczyk hopes to pursue.

“Life was too crazy. It’s almost as if I needed something like this to happen to help me re-examine things,” she said.

In addition to her renewed perspective on life, Stanczyk has realized over the past year—even more than ever—the value of true friendship, which has deepened her appreciation of others.

“Going through all this has helped me become a better friend. I am more focused when I’m with other people, and I try to live in the moment,” she said.