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Grant Winner: Ellinee Nelson

I'm Ellinee Nelson, age 27, and was diagnosed with cancer two weeks after I was accepted into my dream graduate school program, which also happened to be one year before the pandemic shut down the world. I'm sure this goes without saying, but it's been a rough couple years. I am now finally in the first year of that dream program, but as a much different version of myself than the version who got the acceptance letter.


Cancer humor is a special kind of humor. And it's the thing that has gotten me through every step of the way, from diagnosis (literally as you're about to read) to the ongoing struggles of survivorship. I'm really excited to tell this story to an audience I know will "get it," an audience who will see the absolute comical ridiculousness of my diagnosis story, an audience who will let me finish telling it before giving me the sympathetic (pitying) head tilt. Anything, but the head tilt!


Let me set the scene for you. It's March 15, 2019, it's a Friday, it's a gorgeous day in sunny California. I'm freshly 23. I have the day off of work, and I cannot wait to take myself on a solo adventure around town.


I moved here from Chicago three months prior and had some serious exploring to do. Not to mention, I was in desperate need of a haircut. I called a salon that was en route to a coffee shop I had been meaning to check out. Availability for a trim confirmed, perfect!


"That'll be $80! Yikes, Manhattan Beach! For a trim?! I fumbled around with my wallet to pay (did I really just pay $80 plus tip for a mediocre trim? Ugh.) and with my phone to call a car to my next destination. The was still shining so bright and warm. I couldn't wait to spend the afternoon sitting outside, sipping an iced latte.


It's a Friday and it's my day off. I am NOT calling an Uber Pool (remember those?). It had obviously become a -- treat yourself day -- so why not ride in style. And by that I mean alone, with some peace and quiet, where I can look out the window and swoon at this new place I still can't believe I get to live. I could picture it so clearly, my main character moment.


I confirmed the ride then got a notification. Something along the lines of "Hey! There's actually a car already on a trip going to the EXACT direction you're heading! Not only will YOU save money, but it won't add any extra time to your ride." Okay fine, you got me. I did just spend an unplanned $80 on my hair. Confirm.


I watch along on the app and see that the car is nearby. Then I get a call from a California phone number. "Hi, I think I see you. I'll be right there."


"Hello? Ellinee??" It was not my driver.


"This is Dr. L, is now a good time?" Oh right, I knew I'd be getting a call from my new ENT at some point over the course of the week. I started seeing her for some mysteriously swollen lymph nodes that I noticed right before my big move.


"Oh! Hi, sorry about that. How are you doing?" I see the car, wave to the driver and walk over. There's a couple in the back seat so I get in the passenger seat.


"I'm doing well, are you sure not is a good time?"


Listen, I know exactly how this is going to go. The antibiotics didn't help. The nasty little camera snake she saved up my nose? Nada. The ultrasound didn't show anything. The other ultrasound also didn't show anything. The fine needle aspiration was inconclusive. So, what? The core needle biopsy will also be inconclusive. I'm already on the hamster wheel, so please just get on with it. Which is it gonna be? The good old-fashioned: Here's yet another silly little test for you to do, before the next one, and then the next one! Or, the dreaded: I don't know, maybe nothing is wrong with you! Sure, maybe I just spontaneously developed a lumpy neck.


(I didn't say any of that and neither did she.) "Yeah, absolutely, please continue."


"Okay, well. We usually like to do this in the office, in person, but it is a Friday afternoon and we wanted to get these results back to you as soon as possible." I was still sooo sure that I knew exactly what to expect.


And then, while sitting in the passenger seat of an Uber Pool (that I didn't even ask for, remember?) with a couple ON VACATION in the backseat, stuck in traffic, on my day off, my doctor told me the earth shattering news.


I had Hodgkins Lymphoma.

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