PATIENT STORIES | AYA

AUG 2018

A unique cancer program inspires one teen patient to help others

As Paige Rodriguez finished her junior year in high school, she found what she thought was a pimple on her stomach.

She didn’t think much about it at first. Paige was a busy 17-year-old in the middle of a visual arts program for talented students. She was excited about graduating near the top of her class the following year and enrolling in college.

But the pimple kept growing and became very painful, so her dermatologist ordered a biopsy.

That tissue test determined something that put the brakes on Paige’s plans—she had cancer. The rapidly-growing pimple was really a tumor linked to a rare form of blood cancer known as anaplastic large cell lymphoma, or ALCL.

“I fell into a deep depression,” she said. Paige dropped out of her beloved arts class and theater program.

Some of her best friends avoided her.

“They felt they didn’t want someone in their group who had too many problems,” she said.

Some of her other classmates called her, “cancer girl.”

“It was horrible,” she said.“I felt alone.”

The way forward for Paige came with her introduction to the Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Program at University Hospital, the only program of its kind in South Texas. The AYA program is designed specifically for cancer patients between the ages of 15 and 39.

Patients in that age group are often grouped with small children or older adults. They feel isolated. The unique needs they’re facing as they try to keep pace in school; go to work; raise a family, or pay for healthcare often aren’t addressed.

In the AYA program, a social worker went to bat for Paige when school officials challenged her for missing so much school, and resisted providing alternatives for completing her classwork.

A psychologist with the program connected her with other cancer patients near her age who could relate to the difficulties she was facing.

“What I loved was that we didn’t have to talk about cancer when we got together,” she said. “It was just coming together and getting to know each other.It made me feel normal.

”Three years after her diagnosis Paige’s cancer is in remission. She still attends group meetings with other AYA patients, some of whom have become her friends.

Illness put a lot of her dreams on hold, but it has ultimately given her new purpose. Now, Paige is completing her associate’s degree in social work. She plans to counsel other young cancer patients and give them the same sense of hope her AYA team gave her.

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