Sitting in a bright white room reeking of bleach at a hospital in Costa Rica, junior Danielle Steele faced an uncertain future. She was waiting for the test results regarding a lump on her throat. It was cancer.
After reconnecting with her family in Costa Rica in April, Steele remains trapped as a string of airport closures and canceled flights followed her arrival. She continues to reside with her family in Costa Rica—with the exception of her father, whom she lived with in the U.S. It was about two months later during her extended stay that Steele received concerns about her health.
“My best friend’s dad, who is a doctor, discovered that I had cancer,” Steele said. “I had a little ball in my neck, and he touched it, but it didn’t hurt. He said it was very important to take care of it because it could be cancer—and it was cancer.”
The ride to the hospital for a biopsy was tense, the family worried about what the doctors would say. Diagnosed with lymphoma, Steele was directed to chemotherapy. Facing a medical condition she was unfamiliar with brought about waves of anxiety and shook her to her core.
“I was shocked because I didn’t know what to do, or what was happening with my body,” Steele said. “I didn’t know what cancer really was when everything started. They were telling me all these confusing medical terms that I couldn’t understand.”
Steele found herself trying to forget the diagnosis, albeit a silver scar on her neck serves as a permanent, painful reminder of the biopsy. Nonetheless, it impeded her life and forced her to acknowledge the daunting truth. Re-exposure to the hospital in Costa Rica for treatment often brought the memory of being diagnosed to mind.
“The smell of the hospital and all of the IVs felt really bad,” Steele said. “Then, the doctor said I had cancer, and I started crying because people die from cancer. He didn’t really tell us what type of cancer I had until later.”
Long needles and tubes filled with drugs to circulate through the body became necessary for chemotherapy. With sessions every Thursday, it took a whole week to prepare and recover from chemo. The following days, the most mundane of tasks caused Steele to stumble. Once returning home from chemo, she slept for hours.
“Physically, I felt sick,” Steele said. “With cancer, I didn’t really feel sick, but with chemo, it made me feel really sick. I took a couple of pills for nausea and slept all afternoon and the day after that. I was depressed and didn’t want to see anyone or do anything. My hair was starting to fall out, a little bit. That itself was really hard for me.”
After attending chemotherapy for months, the process became taxing, killing Steele’s motivation to finish treatment. Relying solely on a repetitive medical process made the days and weeks a blur. Her family helped support her through the long treatment.
“My big sister made a GoFundMe so that I could pay for my treatment because it’s really expensive,” Steele said. “If I wasn’t stuck here, it would have been very hard for my family because all of them live here, just not my dad. Still, my dad calls me every day.”
In spite of the unrelenting early mornings and unnerving physical weakness that wreaked havoc on her body, Steele completed her last chemotherapy session on Sept. 17. Still plagued with the usual nausea, her week was thrown off-balance but failed to halt her excitement.
“I felt so happy; it’s amazing how I felt,” Steele said. “I don’t have to go anymore and it makes me and my family really happy. This week felt weird, but I feel really happy now because I don’t feel sick from chemo.”
Moving forward on her treatment into radiotherapy, one that targets the area with cancer cells, Steele wishes that she could forget the entire situation. Her memories associated with cancer are hard to talk about—the exhaustion and sickly feeling that overwhelmed her body still fresh in mind. Her journey continues, but radiotherapy is a step towards overcoming cancer.
“It’s hard to find something positive about it,” Steele said. “It has been really hard for me and my family. It’s scary because cancer can always come back, and the doctors said there’s a small chance that I might not be able to have kids in the future. It’s like seeing life differently.”