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LymphomaPatient Stories

Grandpa and Me: How Cancer and Faith Have Shaped My Life's Course

After being hit by “the cancer bomb” at age 20 and inspired by her grandfather’s experience with cancer, Madison Miller started a nonprofit organization to provide resources for other patients with cancer.
December 2018 Vol 4 No 5
Madison Miller
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Survivor
Clearwater, FL

I gravitate toward 2 kinds of people—old people and “big-dreaming” and ambitious people, who know that time is short.

Many young people my age have an invincibility mindset—the time-is-on-our-side mindset—and are content to live mediocre and drifting lifestyles until they die. As for me, I live my life on purpose. I live intentionally, living my life to the fullest.

A cancer diagnosis didn’t instill that, but it definitely enhanced my focus. In high school, I was passionate about human trafficking; I wanted to be a part of ending it. After getting my associate’s degree at age 20, I was all set to move from Florida to California for an internship that would help me do that.

Getting Hit with the Cancer Bomb

Right before I was supposed to leave Florida, my grandpa was diagnosed with cancer. He was “my person”: he and my grandmother were like a second set of parents to me. I called off the internship in California and stayed in Clearwater, Florida, so I could be with him.

We all figured he’d be fine. Grandpa was kind of like a Hollywood grandpa—the rock of the family, who always comes back no matter what. Except, this time, he didn’t.

A week before he passed away, I went to the emergency department with severe chest pain. They found a tumor in my chest, and a biopsy revealed it was stage II non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or NHL.

My poor mom. The same day my grandpa was getting chemo at the hospital, I was diagnosed just a few floors below him. And a month after that, my grandma was diagnosed with cancer. And just 5 years later, in December 2018, she died. Our family was hit with the cancer bomb on all sides.

The Aftermath of NHL Treatment

My treatment was a chemotherapy regimen known as the R-CHOP regimen, that includes the monoclonal antibody Rituxan (rituximab), plus cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, and prednisone; it came in these 24-hour treatment bags, back to back for 7 days straight.

I’d be so tired, or my white blood-cell counts would be so low as a result of the chemotherapy, that I needed to go back to the hospital for an additional week, so they could monitor my blood-cell counts. I did that every month for 6 months, which was followed up with 6 months of radiation. The hospital felt like a jail.

I got an early taste of menopause, which makes you psychotic—absolutely psychotic—and emotional. My mom and I were sharing hot flashes! There were times I’d wake up and my body ached so badly that I thought I was done. Whom can you call who understands what you’re feeling? Nobody. Normally, when you’re 20, the scariest thing you go through is what—finals week?

Although he didn’t know that I got cancer, my grandpa was my best teacher. He showed me how to fight fearlessly from the get-go, and to trust in God. I read many Bible passages with him during his illness and then on my own when I really struggled to find perspective. Watching him, and finding wisdom in scripture, solidified my faith.

Life After Cancer

In many ways, life after cancer is harder than the treatment time. It’s hard to explain the changes you go through to someone who hasn’t experienced them.

My boyfriend was supportive during the year I received treatment, but after that, he wanted to hop back to how things were before I was diagnosed. He didn’t understand menopause at such a young age—what 22-year-old guy would? We broke up a week after the chemo treatments ended.

I’ve lost a few friends as a result of chemo brain, when my memory was affected, and I couldn’t remember someone’s birthday, or I forgot to check up on them enough times. Just because your hair grows back, it doesn’t mean that all is good.

The struggles I’ve had to get back to a new normal have given me an insight into depression, insecurity, and fear. I understand people better when they say, “I’ve got depression. Everything is dark,” or “I hate myself when I look in the mirror.” I have a lot more empathy for everybody, not only patients with cancer.

I also filter people through the lens of what they’re doing with their lives and if they follow their dreams. I’m inspired every time I go to Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a breath of fresh air sitting next to someone at the Frothy Monkey coffeehouse there who is a big-time blogger and is following his passion. I’d move there in a heartbeat, except my mom was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and I want quality time with her.

Not being able to move doesn’t stop me from having an impact now. I want to change the world. I live my life in total freedom, knowing what it’s like to feel trapped inside the hospital, when taking a simple breath was a gift.

Spark the Way

I started a non-profit organization called Spark the Way (sparktheway.org), which supports young adult patients, survivors, and caregivers through financial assistance and through linking them to a community of people like them.

The inspiration came from my grandpa, whose grace through cancer was light bearing for me. I want to give people the same light and the same inspiration when they’re in a place of total darkness.

For a while after treatment, I thought I lost time. But instead I gained time, by gaining life. Now 5 years later, I look at how much I’m living. I wouldn’t be doing any of that, were it not for cancer.

Patient Resources

LiveStrong
www.livestrong.org/we-can-help/young-adults

National Cancer Institute
www.cancer.gov/types/aya

Spark the Way
http://sparktheway.org

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Last modified: February 26, 2019

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