“Cancer doesn’t end when you ring the bell”

Julia Williams, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Survivor

It’s #AYApril, a month-long look into adolescent and young adult cancer. Today, we’re putting a spotlight on Julia’s story and her experience facing cancer as a young adult.
At 32, Julia Williams was too old for a quarter-life crisis and too young for a mid-life crisis. Cancer knows no age limits though, and it brought Julia all the crisis she could handle. 
“When I was diagnosed with cancer,” recalls Julia, “it felt like everything came crashing down at once.” The Annapolis native was home from Jacksonville, North Carolina, visiting her parents, when the mysterious full-body itching and pain she had been experiencing for a while reached a limit she could no longer tolerate. Staunchly independent, Julia knew something must be seriously wrong when she gave up control and let her mom take her to the doctor. 
Within two weeks, Julia’s life as she knew it was over. She had been dealt a diagnosis of progressive Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, with swollen lymph nodes throughout her body and fluid threatening her heart and lungs. She quit her fast-paced job as a bartender in a young, military town and moved back to her childhood home with her folks. And the day before her first chemotherapy treatment, Julia’s husband told her he was leaving her.

As Julia began her six-month course of intense ABVD chemo on July 17, 2018, she had just her parents, her dogs, and her feelings to keep her company. Most cancer survivors would recognize the enormous range of emotions Julia felt in her first few months of living with cancer…shock, fear, sadness, anger, confusion, even guilt. Julia hesitated to share her feelings  with her mom because she didn’t want to burden, sadden, or scare her. She cast aside support group flyers and kept her nose in a book during treatment, rather than make small talk with other cancer patients. Loneliness set in and intensified Julia’s independent streak, leading her to resist help and even go so far as to slide down stairs on her bottom to avoid accepting a hand.  
If Ulman’s Patient Navigator had reached out a few weeks earlier, Julia may have ignored the call, determined to continue going it alone. But nearing the conclusion of her chemo, her mental health had taken such a toll that she agreed to meet Megan and learn what she had to offer. Julia reluctantly accepted Megan’s invitation to a gathering of the Annapolis Where YA Meet group right before her final chemo session, and was totally surprised when all of those pent up feelings started pouring out of her. Julia admits, “I fell in love with it [the Where YA Meet group]. It was mind-blowing to be around other people going through the same thing.”
Julia completed her treatment and transitioned into a lifetime of survivorship with a community of support and a new mindset; she could now see that everything crashing down six months earlier had cleared her way for a fresh start. 
“Cancer doesn’t end when you ring the bell,” Julia reflects. Coming up on the three-year milestone of her diagnosis, Julia may be reaching the end of regular scans, pricks, and check-ins with her oncologist. Outside of the hospital, however, she plans to keep her cancer community at the center of her life, and to help others realize – sooner than she did – how resources offered by organizations like Ulman, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), and countless others can make life easier and richer for young people facing health challenges.
Julia is pursuing a degree in Health Education and Promotion at Towson University, and is anxiously awaiting an internship with LLS next spring. She knows that she doesn’t have to wait until she dons her cap and gown to start helping, though, and cancer has made her pretty impatient; life is short, after all. So between classes and study sessions, you’ll find Julia running with Ulman’s Anne Arundel County Cancer to 5K team, planning virtual trivia meet-ups for young blood cancer survivors, or simply normalizing cancer whenever she has a chance. 
Julia still wonders sometimes what her life would have looked like without cancer. She’d probably have better overall health, fewer medical bills, and definitely would have made more gains in the gym. But cancer has helped her grow in ways that “normal” life never could, so if that midlife crisis ever rolls around, she’ll be ready to tackle it head-on.
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