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A jellybean-sized lump leads to a lymphoma diagnosis at 26

Patient Spotlight May 06, 2015 By Main Line Health

In August 2014, 26-year-old Alyssa Ness noticed a small lump on the side of her neck. It wasn’t bothering her or causing her pain, so she ignored it, sure it was nothing to get worked up over. But after one of her favorite television shows featured a storyline about a lymphoma diagnosis that started with a jellybean-sized lump on the neck, she started to worry.

“I ran downstairs to my husband, Eric, and I told him I had lymphoma,” recalls Ness. “He thought I was crazy and told me I didn’t have it, but that if I was so worried I should make a doctor’s appointment.”

The very next day, Ness visited her physician who told her that, although the likelihood of her having cancer was minor, a blood test and CT scan would allow them to know for sure. While her blood work showed no signs of cancer, the CT scan found several enlarged lymph nodes which, when biopsied, tested positive for classic Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Although Ness had been worried about cancer, the diagnosis still shocked her.

“You never expect to get diagnosed with cancer at 26. But once you do, you think ‘Wow, I have no idea what I’m doing.’”

She wasted no time mapping out a treatment plan. On a Tuesday, only three days after her cancer diagnosis, she had an appointment at The Cancer Center of Paoli Hospital. Oncologist Pallavi Rastogi, MD, sat with Ness and her husband for five hours exploring treatment options and answering the couple’s questions.

Although it was under less-than-ideal circumstances, Ness says she and Eric were impressed with Dr. Rastogi right away.

“At one point, Dr. Rastogi got up to leave the room for a minute and I turned to Eric and I said, ‘I love her!’ and he said he did, too,” says Ness. “We knew then that Paoli was the way to go.”

Ness’ chemotherapy sessions were slated to begin in October but, before she could begin, she enrolled in the oncofertility program at Main Line Fertility Center (MLFC) in Bryn Mawr, led by Michael Glassner, MD, reproductive endocrinologist at Main Line Health. She and Eric wanted to preserve her eggs prior to chemotherapy, as the couple was young and planning for children. With only two weeks until her chemo began, Ness says the staff at MLFC treated her “like gold,” juggling appointments to ensure that her egg retrieval could be completed in time.

And completed it was; Ness’ egg retrieval took place on a Monday, and her chemo began just two days later.

‘Like being with friends’

Over the next three months, Ness received bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments. Although she says the symptoms of her chemotherapy were less than ideal, she credits the nursing staff at Paoli Hospital for making her feel comfortable every time.

“Every time I was at treatment, it felt like being with friends, like I was just hanging out with everyone,” says Ness. “They were so nice and accommodating. I come from a big Italian family, and brought so many people with me to each chemo treatment, but none of the nurses ever minded. They were amazing.”

The staff was equally amazed by Ness, who remained upbeat throughout her cancer journey.

"What struck me about Alyssa was that she was always so positive about everything," recalls Dr. Rastogi. "She wanted to do everything she could to battle her cancer. For someone with such a daunting diagnosis at such a young age, she was so positive about it."

In January 2015, after chemotherapy treatments, it was time for a second CT scan to evaluate whether or not the treatment had been effective. Ness vividly remembers sitting in the waiting room, awaiting her results.

“I remember seeing Betty Ann, who was the first nurse that I met during my treatment, and I just burst into tears,” she recalls. “It was the most nerve-wracking day of my life, waiting to hear what those results were.”

Fortunately, Ness had little to be worried about. When she was taken back to see Dr. Rastogi, she was met with a big smile.

“Dr. Rastogi came back in the room and she said, ‘Alyssa, I’m smiling! This is good!,” says Ness.

Now three months’ cancer-free, Ness will continue to have follow up CT scans to ensure her cancer does not return. And although most women don’t expect to be making follow-up appointments after cancer treatments at age 27, Ness says she credits Paoli Hospital for making her treatment comfortable and seamless.

“Everyone I met at Paoli was amazing. Of course you don’t want to have cancer but, if you do, that’s the place to go. I had a great experience there.”

The Cancer Center of Paoli Hospital offers an award-winning comprehensive and innovative oncology program in the fight against breast, prostate, colorectal, and lung cancers. To learn more, visit our website.