Nothing stood in the way of my perfect senior year.
I had just finished the dream internship as a production assistant for The Daytripper, one of my favorite shows, in my dream town, Austin. I returned to school in August ready to take on my last year of college. The list of opportunities in front of me was endless: I was features editor of the Optimist, a cast member of the social media campaign Life on the Hill and president of the campus Society of Professional Journalists chapter. Everything was lining up to make this the best year yet.
But all of that was before Friday, Oct. 24.
Before that Friday, my days were packed full, as I eagerly took every opportunity that came my way. Before that day, I was just another senior making her way toward graduation, daydreaming about the career God had planned for her future.
But on that Friday, time halted.
During my summer internship, the right side of my stomach started hurting and became much firmer than the left. Soon, even wearing sweatpants hurt. But I brushed it off, figuring maybe it would just go away.
As school started, I was too busy to notice the huge bulge that was becoming more obvious in my waistline. However, as weeks passed, the pain became too much to ignore. In October, I finally decided I’d allow myself to take a break to figure out what was going on. I assumed I’d be back without missing a beat.
Then came that Friday. On that day, the doctors told me a desmoid tumor was attached to my stomach wall and was growing quickly. I had never even heard of a desmoid tumor – and my doctor barely had. These tumors are so rare, the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation says only two to four people out of a million are diagnosed with one each year. They are benign and don’t spread like cancer but grow large and wrap tightly around whatever they are attached to. Mine was so big, surgery would most likely mean missing the rest of senior year because surgeons would have to reconstruct my stomach.
And so, just like that, instead of worrying about grades and Chapel credits like a normal senior, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to graduate.
The next three weeks were booked with daily appointments with different doctors, MRIs and lab tests. My parents and I were driving 45 minutes through traffic to Dallas and back every day as the doctors tried to figure out where to go next.
Because the tumor was attached to my stomach wall, the doctors were pretty sure they could remove it easily with surgery, which seemed much less frightening than the alternative: chemotherapy.
Yet, even in the middle of this uncertainty, as I awaited surgery surrounded by my family, God showed himself to me through the love that was being sent my way from ACU. Professors sent kind words in emails and called to check up on me. Friends sent me homemade videos to keep me laughing.
One night, after a week of doctors’ appointments, my mom called me down to the kitchen because my college group at Hillcrest Church of Christ had sent me a package. I pulled out the oversized white card that read, “We Love You Linsey.”
But there was more. About 60 multi-colored homemade construction-paper cards cascaded out of the larger card and into my lap. I was speechless as I tearfully read the giant card with about 30 signatures in it and spent the next hour reading card after card of encouragement and love from friends and strangers.
And the love didn’t stop there. Over the next two weeks, letters and packages constantly arrived at our doorstep, from gift boxes covered in Taylor Swift lyrics containing homemade crafts from friends to cards signed by my classmates and professors. Staying hopeful was so much easier because of the compassion from those around me.
Still, the journey was far from over. In November, my doctor decided that the tumor was too large for surgery. Instead, he wanted to try shrinking it with chemotherapy first. And just like that, I watched my perfect senior year slip even farther away.
The chemo center was a façade of reassurance, with bright walls and rows of heavily-padded recliners with options for massage and heat to distract patients from the poison being pumped into their bodies. It smelled of sterilizing alcohol, and the nurses in brightly colored scrubs smiled a little too happily. Screens with window-like scenes of serene landscapes and babbling brooks on the walls separated rows of chairs. Yet, despite the attempts at comfort in the centers, nothing could calm my fears about being there.
My first treatment was terrifying. The cancer patients around me looked so pale and thin; I wasn’t ready to look like that. I wore for the first time what was to be my regular attire for the next few months: a T-shirt so they could get to my arm easily, sweatpants and a jacket because my ever-shrinking body was always freezing. The nurse tried to encourage me with, “I don’t expect you to lose all your hair.” She stressed the word “all.”
After receiving a few treatments at home to make sure the medicine didn’t make me too sick, I decided to go back to school and continue the treatments in Abilene so I could to catch up on some of the homework piling up from the past few weeks.
It was so good to be back at ACU, but nothing was the same. The worst part was having to hand over the positions I had worked so hard for. I said goodbye to my jobs at the Optimist and Life on the Hill. It was hard enough to just make it to class, let alone muster the strength to sit through Chapel.
The chemo was a vacuum, sucking the life out of me. Everything I ate made me sick, sometimes just the word “chemo” nauseated me. Exhaustion took over, and I had no energy to do much besides sleep. I avoided looking at my comb after each shower, knowing weaved in it were too many locks of my hair as it thinned. A stranger stared back at me in the mirror; I’d lost so much weight, and my skin was pasty.
But the changes weren’t just physical. The things I’d once enjoyed doing, like hanging with friends, no longer made a difference. I lost the sparks of my personality, my humor and joy, because I was always just too tired. It was like I couldn’t even remember who I’d been before starting chemo. I was shuffling through the days like a zombie.
Still, I pushed on, because even if it couldn’t be the best senior year, I was determined to at least graduate with my friends.
And though the hope seemed small, that’s where the love of those around me came back in. People would text me to see if I needed a ride anywhere. Everyone stopped me on the way to class to encourage me through the day. Neighbors brought me homemade food.
On weekends, which were especially hard because my chemo treatments were every Friday, friends would bring me dinner and watch movies with me until I went to bed at 8:30 p.m. My social club, Alpha Kai Omega, dedicated its Sing Song act to me, even though I couldn’t participate because practices were usually starting at my bedtime. My friends helped me throw a Halloween party in January because I’d missed the holiday in October and had the tutu for my costume made since August. We had pumpkin treats, costumes and even a Thriller dance-off.
Everyone was taking care of me and rooting for me. Even when it was hard to see God through my exhaustion, His love lived in the compassion of those around me.
At the beginning of February, after 10 treatments and two extremely hard months, the tumor still hadn’t shrunk. The doctor decided to stop my chemo treatments, and instead, we are keeping an eye on it and hoping it will stop growing until I graduate. We put off the surgery until this summer.
Two months since quitting chemo, I’m still working to put myself back together. The process of rediscovery has been much tougher than I’d imagined. Some of the dreams that fueled me last August are still trying to resurface after the chemo as well. My hair still hasn’t regrown fully, and the scars from needles still dot my arm. Yet each week, my body slowly returns to what it once was, and I find hope in that.
I’ve returned to school, living my regular life – thankfully chemo-free – but still with the foreboding idea of surgery hanging over my head. I’m taking 16 hours and racing against the ever-ticking clock to finish the two classes I had to take in-progress last semester just so I can be cleared to graduate.
Yet, even as I put this journey to words, something occurs to me. My senior year has turned out to be nowhere near what I planned it to be. I’m working harder than I ever have, and I may just barely make it to graduation.
But that’s all right with me. Instead of a list of all the accomplishments and honors I would have received this year, that list is now filled with the times God picked me up where I fell and sent friends to carry me when I was too weak.
And ironically, when I walk across that stage in May in front of the community that helped me get there, I’ll be prouder of myself than I would have been if my senior year had worked out as perfectly as I’d wanted it to.