She worries about freckles. She gets concerned if her sleep habits are off. When she felt a lump in her breast, it ruined her weekend.
As a pediatric cancer survivor who is now 32, Heather Gangemi is on high alert.
She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 14. Her lymph nodes swelled to the size of golf balls. Normally they should be the size of peas, which enlarge to the size of marbles during sickness. What she hoped would be a bad case of allergies or a cold turned out to be cancer.
“Up until the moment the oncologist told me that I had cancer, cancer never entered my mind. I would have never guessed that cancer would happen to a healthy kid like me,” Gangemi said during the ribbon cutting for the new Upstate Cancer Center last summer.
She received four months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation therapy at Upstate University Hospital before she was considered in remission. She remembers nurses and doctors who made her feel beautiful when she was bald, who helped her participate in making health care decisions even as a young teen.
At first her appointments were every three months, then every six. Now she has checkups every year. Today she has lived more than half of her life as a cancer survivor.
“I live a normal life, but I spend quite a bit of time worrying about my health. I’ve had shadows on x-rays that should be nothing, and thankfully turned out to be nothing, but are scary just the same,” she said.
Complications from childhood cancers and their treatments may occur many years later, so experts recommend survivors be carefully monitored for the rest of their lives. “The specific late effects that a person who was treated for childhood cancer might experience depend on the type and location of his or her cancer, the type of treatment he or seen received, and patient-related factors, such as age at diagnosis,” the American Cancer Society points out on its website.
Cancer had a huge impact on her life, and when it came time for college, Gangemi knew science would be in her future somehow. She had a desire to work in the field of oncology. She briefly thought about medical school. Then she looked into radiation technology. Neither seemed right for her. “I don’t think I would have been able to handle it. I think I would have gotten too invested in every single patient.”
So Gangemi found her passion at Bristol-Myers Squibb in East Syracuse. There, she assists the division that manufactures oncology medications.