Staying courageous

Rachel Abbey

KSU student beats cancer, keeps fighting for others

Rachael Mendenhall, junior fashion design major, holds a photo of herself taken while undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma in 2003. Mendenhall’s cancer has been in remission since June 2005. LESLIE CUSANO | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: John Proppe

It was a normal day in June when Rachael Mendenhall’s life changed.

She was bringing in the carts at her part-time job at Wal-Mart. Every time she put her head down to push the line forward, a sharp pain cut through her chest. It was hard to breathe.

She tried to put it out of her mind.

The next morning, the pain lingered. Her parents took her to the emergency room.

A scan revealed a mass the size of a baseball in her chest. It was nestled near her lung behind her rib cage. The mass, which had probably only started growing earlier that month, needed to be removed as soon as possible, the doctor said.

Rachael didn’t know what to think. Her vision blurred.

Go to work, her parents said. It would keep her mind off it until they knew for sure. Rachael drove to the Wal-Mart and pulled her car into a parking space. And she sat. And sat.

She dialed her boyfriend’s number. When Travis answered, she started sobbing.

“Go home,” he said, “and I’ll meet you there.” And she did.

The next night was high school graduation, and Rachael and her friends planned to meet in the library to exchange gifts before walking the stage.

She didn’t know when they would all be in the same place again. She had to tell them. She didn’t want anyone to hear secondhand.

She never even made it through the first sentence. Her cousin took over when Rachael’s tears got to be too much.

Rachael went to the doctor a few days later to get her biopsy. She had to stay awake through the whole procedure to control her breathing because the mass was so close to her lung.

The doctors numbed Rachael’s chest. Then, they prepared the needle – it stretched for more than three inches. Every time they brought the needle to her chest, it passed right in front of her face. And Rachael had always been terrified of needles.

The doctor pushed the needle in one, two times. She watched it go in and out. The third time, she felt the it break through her skin and ease through the muscle, hitting the mass like a rock. The doctor pulled it out. Blood gushed from the tiny hole.

She was still terrified.

It was about a week or two until official word came: Lymphoma.

Rachael’s first thought was college.

“I have three months before I have to go to school,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”

The doctor was skeptical, but Rachael was sure: The mass would be gone by the end of the summer, and she could go to Kent State as she’d planned all year. She already had a room assignment. She’d be ready. This couldn’t hold her back.

When she showed up for her first session of chemotherapy, the doctor outlined the two-year plan.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. She couldn’t believe it. She thought of possible compromises, such as skipping first semester and resting up for the second.

The doctor smiled and nodded, humoring her. Later, he pulled her parents into the hall and told them they had to change her mind. She would be too weak.

She went to chemo for the first time June 3, 2003.

The nurse came into the treatment room. Rachael braced herself – needles still terrified her. Her port for the chemo, a round circular tube leading into the vein, sat in the center of her chest. It still ached from the surgery to put it in. Rachael watched as the nurse readied a one-inch needle. She missed again and again, bringing the needle in and out of the port, searching for the vein. By the time the nurse got it in, Rachael thought she would pass out.

For the first month of chemo, Rachael held onto the idea that she would be at Kent State in August. Her roommate called and left messages, but Rachael put off calling her back. At the beginning of July, Rachael picked up a letter from Kent State advertising their convenient microfridges.

She realized this was real. And Kent State couldn’t happen – not yet.

The chemo gave her horrendous migraines, and the spinal taps made her back ache. Some nights, she couldn’t even walk up the stairs to lie in her bed. Her dad had to carry her.

For the first two or three months, Rachael went to chemo three times a week and took medication for the pain – lots of medication.

She was so sick, she barely noticed her friends weren’t around.

They left for college, but nothing changed. She realized they hadn’t been there that summer either. They hadn’t asked questions or visited. Flowers and cards came in from neighbors and classmates, and the phone rang off the hook. But the girls she had counted on for longer than she could remember were MIA.

It hurt more than the cancer.

The next stage of chemo put Rachael into the hospital for a week at a time. By February and March 2004, things started to stabilize. She went to the hospital for treatment about once a month and took fewer meds. She started to think about school again.

A year later than planned, Rachael came to Kent State. She had to refill her medicine container the first night there.

She pulled her blue and purple seven-day pill organizer from the partially unpacked containers. Her new roommate, Allison, began asking questions. She wanted to know everything – what each pill was, what each pill did, why Rachael needed each one – there were five or six, from the huge, chalky antibiotic to the smaller everyday ones. And Rachael told her. None of her friends from home had wanted to know.

Rachael still went to chemo once a month, feeling sick or weak in between. The early fall sun would bake down during the long walk back from orientation class every week – all the way from Rockwell Hall to Small Group. Sweaty and sore, she collapsed on her bed into their air-conditioned room.

Rachael rarely missed class. She only told one professor about the cancer because she had to miss a test. She had gone home to Union City that weekend and couldn’t drive the four hours back with her migraine. Chemo could make her sick anytime.

She started getting treatment closer to Kent at Akron Children’s Hospital. Her parents showed her the way, but she wasn’t sure how to get there on her own. Allison went with Rachael to help her find the hospital and keep her company.

They got to that first appointment half an hour late, just glad to have made it at all. Rachael had accidentally turned the wrong way down a one-way street while Allison screamed from the passenger seat. Once safely inside, the two waited for the next three hours, reading stories out loud from Allison’s Cosmopolitan and laughing until they cried.

Later that semester, the roommates learned about Relay for Life, a 24-hour walk to raise money for the American Cancer Society, and decided to recruit friends and start a team.

The springtime event soon came. Decorated team tents lined the track by Small Group. Only survivors could walk the first lap, and Rachael had signed up.

The morning of the relay, Rachael walked across the field from her team’s tent to the survivors’ tent for breakfast. She looked at the people signing the big banner they would carry during the first lap with the length of time they had been in remission.

She didn’t know what to put. She was younger than everyone. They had numbers like eight, 10 years of being cancer-free to write down. She was still in chemotherapy.

Rachael skipped the banner in favor of some breakfast. She thought she should at least try to eat. A couple of older women, both survivors for about eight years, sat down and asked Rachael point blank what kind she had and how long she had been in remission. Rachael could talk about it with friends and family, but not with strangers. How could they come out with it like it’s so easy to talk about, she thought.

When they asked how long she had been out of chemo, she panicked.

“Well, I’m still doing chemo,” she told them, spiking the doubts in her mind.

She left her breakfast unfinished, giving them no more details. Shaking and crying as she walked across the field, Rachael worried her sobs would carry to the people wandering around the tents. At her tent, she buried her face into her mom’s shoulder and kept crying.

“I can’t do the walk,” Rachael said. “I can’t walk the lap.”

Her mom held her, telling her she deserved to walk. She hadn’t had a single relapse.

“If I can, I’ll walk it with you,” she offered.

Rachael went back – alone. She needed to do this.

She cried through half the lap, walking as a survivor. In the back of her mind, doubts remained. She wasn’t done.

About a month later, Rachael finished her two years of chemo. The mass had shrunk to the size of a pencil within four months of starting treatment. Blood and bone marrow tests looked clear.

A month after that, she went back for her first post-treatment check-up.

“This is the start of your remission,” the doctor said.

She still has to go in for check-ups, but June 2005 marks the last time Rachael took any medication. And the blue and purple pill organizer she had lived with it for the past two years?

She left it at home.

Contact news editor Rachel Abbey at [email protected].