Conquering college & cancer

Early action, expert care and a positive attitude help St. Norbert student get back to her goals at hand

Just Like Any Other Student

Mary McConnaha—who friends and family know as Maggie—was excited to embark on a new stage of life. It was fall of 2014 and just like so many other college freshmen, she was eager to head away from home and start her journey. For Mary, her journey began at St. Norbert College.

Maggie’s first semester went by in a flash. Between adjusting to her classes, campus and college life, it seemed there was barely time to rest.

A few weeks in to her second semester, Maggie noticed a mysterious lump on her neck. At first, she shrugged it off. Earlier in the winter, two of her friends had come down with mononucleosis—commonly known as mono. She figured she’d shared some food or a drink with one of them and caught the virus. When she asked her friends about their symptoms, both told her their lymph nodes were swollen and felt like large goose eggs. And that’s exactly how the lump on her neck felt. Maggie decided she just had mono and would wait for more symptoms to appear before heading to the doctor.

More than Mono

Days went by, and aside from the lump on her neck, Maggie experienced no mono symptoms. Over the next several weeks, she visited her college’s health and wellness center on three separate occasions. At each appointment, Maggie took a mono test—and each time, the test came back negative. Without any symptoms or a diagnosis, she went back to her normal routine.

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This whole time I thought maybe I had mono, but now the doctor was telling me he wanted to check for cancer.

Back at home over Easter break, Maggie told her mom about the lump on her neck. They decided to stop at HFM’s walk-in clinic before she headed back to school. Since Maggie displayed no other symptoms other than the lump on her neck, the doctor on duty asked that she return in three weeks for a biopsy to be tested for lymphoma.

“This whole time I thought maybe I had mono,” explained Maggie. “But now the doctor was telling me he wanted to check for cancer. Like any other typical person, I jumped online and started doing research on lymphoma.”

A Life-Changing Diagnosis—a Time for Action

Maggie with her mom Colleen McConnaha during a chemotherapy session.

In June, nearly four months after the mysterious lump on her neck first appeared, Maggie received her biopsy result and a life-changing diagnosis—that of nodular sclerosis Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a type of cancer common in young adults, especially women.

“My worst fear came true and my world was forever transformed,” recalled Maggie.

Following a PET scan, Maggie learned she had a mass on both the left and right side of her neck, as well as on the central part of her chest. Her lymphoma was classified as stage 2A, meaning she didn’t have cancer below the diaphragm and no “B” symptoms—like sudden weight loss, night sweats or chills. However, she was still considered a high-risk case due to the fact that her tumors were located in three different sites.

“I consider myself very lucky since I was able to catch the cancer early on,” noted Maggie. “I don’t know how persistent I would’ve been in seeing a healthcare provider if my friends hadn’t had mono. Once the initial shock wore off and reality set in, my perspective and optimism made all the difference in how I wanted to fight this disease.”

And for Maggie, the choice was simple. She chose to take immediate action and fight her cancer head-on.

Top-Notch Treatment

Going to college away from home can be difficult for anyone, and adding cancer treatment into the mix makes things even more challenging. But that’s exactly what Maggie did.

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Cancer has a way of putting your life on hold and making you prioritize your health, treatments and your best attempts to not feel sick through the process.

Starting in July, and for the following four months, Maggie went through four cycles of chemotherapy treatment sessions at HFM’s Cancer Center. After those initial sessions, her next PET scan came back clean in mid-October. After the clean scan, and with the guidance and support of our dedicated cancer experts, Maggie opted to complete 12 additional sessions of radiation therapy instead of two more cycles of chemotherapy to officially complete her cancer treatment.

“Cancer has a way of putting your life on hold and making you prioritize your health, treatments and your best attempts to not feel sick through the process,” commented Maggie. “The chemo was really taxing on my body. I would always need someone to come with me because the chemo made me really tired and I couldn’t drive. And different days and times would correspond with different symptoms. Some days I was tired or nauseous and other days I would have muscle aches.”

But through it all, Maggie persevered and is proud to say she now lives cancer-free.

A Future Worth Fighting For

Maggie (top row, center) with some of the HFM Cancer Center staff. Top row (left to right): Birgit Kelly, Mary Matthias, Maggie McConnaha, Mary Lindsay Froelich, Kimberly Debauche. Bottom row (left to right): Pattie Wellner, Angie Popp

Maggie is back to living life like any other college student. She’s currently in her sophomore year at St. Norbert College pursuing an English Education major with a double minor in Spanish and Peace and Justice Studies. After graduating, she hopes to teach for a few years and then find a career that combines both education, writing and advocacy work. When she thinks back to everything she’s been through over the past year, Maggie can’t stress enough the power her positive attitude had in helping her through the difficult times.

“You have to be positive,” said Maggie. “If you give up on what your dreams are and your aspirations, you really just give up on living and let the cancer beat you. I’m thankful for my family’s support—we’ve grown a lot closer in the last year. Now, I’m taking it one day at a time and pushing hard to achieve all the goals and things I wanted to do before I was diagnosed.”

For Maggie, the future is bright. And we’re happy to have played a part in making sure she’ll have the chance to experience everything to come.