It has been three weeks since her last visit, as 21-year-old Marquette student Katie Dorman pulls up to the Oncology Alliance office in Milwaukee. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma only three months earlier, she drives alone to receive her next round of chemotherapy. Before exiting the car, she removes her newly purchased auburn wig and replaces it with a green baseball cap that reads, “Life is good.”
The receptionist, who knows her by name, greets her warmly as Dorman takes a seat in one of the many recliners strew about the office. Somehow the furniture, the framed art on the walls and flowers on the windowsill are supposed to make the experience more pleasant than it is.
While receiving a standard blood count analysis, Dorman talks casually with her nurse about the mid-afternoon traffic on the ride over and her favorite line-ups on prime-time T.V. The nurse finishes up the blood work with a Scooby Doo Bandaid. “You always have the fun ones,” Dorman teases.
On her way out, an elderly man in the elevator, also battling cancer, lets out a heavy sigh and says, “You’re too young to be here.” She nods in agreement. With an average diagnosis age for lymphoma falling between 40 and 70, Dorman is one of the youngest in the office. Despite the age difference, both have a long road ahead of them.
CHANGE OF PACE
Only a year ago, Dorman transferred to Marquette University from Kalamazoo College in Michigan and wasted no time adjusting to life in Milwaukee. She quickly got involved in local politics and started working 25 hours a week as a legal assistant for the law fi rm Boyle, Boyle & Boyle. She
took classes toward her degree in philosophy with hopes of grad school in the future. She attended the Marquette basketball games at the Bradley Center, and like most upperclassmen, she found a home at two local bars on campus, Murphy’s and Caffrey’s.
But her fast-paced college lifestyle came to a halt when she was diagnosed with cancer only four days before the start of the Fall 2005 semester. Dorman withdrew from classes and prepared for surgery. Little did anyone know that a cancerous tumor had been growing in her chest all summer.
Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer with nearly 500,000 Americans currently diagnosed. In 2005, the Lymphoma Research Foundation projects that approximately 56,390 new cases of non-Hodgkins lymphoma will be diagnosed and 19,200 Americans will die from the disease. The overall five-year survival rate is 59 percent.
“I went from being the college kid who could do everything, go out and party every night and just live up life to not being able to get out of bed and take a shower in the morning,” said Dorman.
Not ready to reveal the news, Dorman went to her cousin’s wedding that same weekend and told no one of her diagnosis. She did not want to spoil the family’s day of celebration, but the wedding ceremony stirred some emotions inside her: “The start of their future marked the start of my new future with cancer.”
And indeed Dorman’s school year was not what she expected. Having lost 25 pounds and all of her hair since the surgery a few months ago, she does not have the physical strength to do the things she used to.
“When I was first diagnosed, there would be tons of people out running and roller-blading. I would get so angry, because I can’t do that anymore,” said Dorman.
It will be months before she can lace up shoes and go running again. Terrible bone pain from the drug Neulasta, necessary to maintain her white cell count, keeps Dorman in bed about 16 hours a day. Like most college students on the weekends, her mornings begin about two in the afternoon, but her sleeping habits are not a result of late-night partying. And although a hangover may be remedied, “there is no blanket, no hot bath, no cup of tea that will make the pain go away,” she said.
Her new queen-sized bed, an upgrade from her previous twin size, makes the aches a little more bearable. She jokingly refers to the bed as “the playground” since much of her time is spent under her new down comforter. It has also become the prime location for toenail painting, her new hobby.
Despite its light-hearted nickname, “the playground” does not have the social benefits of a college campus. She often spends the day alone while her mother is at work and sister is away at college.
“You sit at home alone all day and don’t really have the energy to pick up the phone and call anyone, but you wish it would ring,” said Dorman.
Maintaining relationships is one of most diffi cult aspects of being sick for Dorman – maybe more of a struggle than the cancer itself. Despite living only fifteen minutes from campus, she still feels disconnected from Marquette life. Although she has learned to accept her own illness, many friends are not ready to process the reality of the situation.
“People deal with things differently,” said Dorman. “It’s not just my struggle; all of my friends have to deal with it, too.”
Some friends adapted quickly and became proactive in supporting Dorman, sending cards and calling often. Others lost contact, not knowing what to say.“I want people to feel as comfortable as possible with my cancer,” she said. “I’m still me. I’m still sarcastic. I still like to gossip and hang out. Even though I’m not around (on campus), I still exist. I’m still here.”
Yet she holds no contempt toward distant or fading relationships, nor does she consider them inadequate friendships. There is no such thing as a “bad friend,” according to Dorman.
“Just because some friends don’t call or act strangely around me doesn’t mean they’re bad friends. They probably just don’t know what to do,” she explained.
Dorman is waiting patiently for friends to come to their own understanding of the illness. She even encouraged her 20 year old sister, Amy, to seek counseling while the family participates in the recovery process.
Dorman says her family has been very supportive and has grown closer since the diagnosis. While lymphoma is not genetic, Dorman’s extended family is no stranger to the disease. Her grandmother died from it in 2002, and her step-cousin, only 10-years-old at the time, battled lymphoma about five years ago.
NEW EYES TO SEE
Having cancer is a major reality check for Dorman and has helped prioritize the values in her life.
“I used to freak out about everything (before cancer),” she recalled. “I used to say, ‘Oh my God! I haven’t done the dishes. I have to go to work. I’m going to miss a deadline.’ Now I realize that those things are not a big deal.” Dorman reminds fellow Marquette students that turning in that end-of-the-semester term paper is crucial, but should not determine one’s self-worth.
Maintaining a sense of self is vital to her value system, and she encourages others to pursue their passions. Dorman recalls an infl uential art teacher who said, “If you love being a garbage man, then do it. Don’t worry about what other people think.”
Dorman continued, “You’re the only person with control over your life. If you let others run it for you instead, you will wake up one day with your face down in the mud and realize you let your life go.”
She embodies those words every day in her battle with cancer: “I can’t change the fact that I have cancer. All I can do is buckle down, accept the fact, deal with it and focus on getting over it.” Dorman finds comfort in an excerpt of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Dorman has experienced a renewal in her faith these last few months, looking to God for inspiration. Flattered and humbled by the prayers of family and friends, she decided to pray on her own, too. Dorman found she could identify with the Book of Job, which a friend recommended to her. Job’s story inspired her to find God’s plan in the midst of hardship.
“I found a little Christ in my life,” she said. “I know that He does not give you more than you can handle. He would not give me cancer without also giving me the resources necessary to handle it.”
Some of those resources Dorman mentions in her own life include supportive friends, a mother who graciously welcomed her move back home, skilled doctors and a good health insurance plan.
“This Thanksgiving,” Dorman declared, “I had a lot to be thankful for.”
Even at such a young age, Dorman believes she has lived a fulfi lling life thus far. She would not wish for anything more should her recovery take a turn for the worse. The only exception would be a lunch date with Barbara Bush, a dream she has held since childhood when she first admired the pearls of the former First Lady.
LIFE GOES ON
Dorman, still a dreamer, has not been aged by this unexpected detour in her life. She still makes it to the Marquette basketball games, enjoys a good episode of Family Guy, and even treats herself to a glass of wine every now and then. She wants to live her life like all college students her age.
“I don’t want to be the 40-year-old mom out with my 16-year-old daughter trying to hustle up guys at a club because I missed all that when I was 21,” Dorman adamantly declared. “When I’m 40, I want to be 40, proudly watching my hair go grey – God-willing it comes back.”
Dorman fi nds meaning in the works of her favorite philosopher, Hegel: “Spirit gains its truth only by fi nding itself in absolute dismemberment.”
“Here I am, completely dismembered,” observed Dorman, “but when I emerge, I have more spirit, understanding of myself than I thought possible.”
Dorman still fears a second cancer occurrence in the future. Although the remission rate for lymphoma is 90 percent, approximately 30 percent of that group will battle cancer again.
“If I’m going to die, I won’t die with regrets,” said Dorman. “It’s all about choices in life, and you have to realize that you’re the only one that can make them. You have the power to live your life.”