For Lauren Chiarello, the first sign that something was wrong was itchy skin.
Her legs, her arms and her stomach were all itchy despite the fact that her skin was not dry and she did not have any rashes.
The then-23-year-old was shocked as someone who ate well and exercised regularly, and immediately began chemotherapy to treat the cancer.
Just six months after being declared cancer-free, Chiarello learned her cancer had returned again.
The fitness instructor, 33, who has been in remission for the last eight-and-a-half years, has become a cancer advocate in hopes of spreading information about the warning signs to look out for before it’s too late.
Lauren Chiarello, 33 (pictured), from New York City, was experiencing itchy skin back in 2007 and visited a dermatologist to find out why. A series of tests led to the discovery that she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Chiarello (pictured, 2009 after her second diagnosis) began chemotherapy just two weeks later and was declared in remission in August 2009. She decided to train for a marathon to raise money for cancer research.
Chiarello said she decided to visit the dermatologist in December 2007 after it became so bad that she was unable to concentrate at work.
‘The dermatologist had given me a prescription for eczema cream and, even though neither of us were convinced I had eczema, that’s where we were going to start,’ Chiarello told Daily Mail Online.
‘As I was leaving, I decided to mention a lump I felt because, even though the dermatologist didn’t mention it, I thought: “Let me just speak up because it can be so easy to sit on the sidelines and say nothing.”‘
Her dermatologist recommended she go see a primary care doctor. Chiarello underwent chest X-rays, MRIs and CT scans before she was finally directed to an ear, nose and throat doctor.
After performing two biopsies, the doctor informed Chiarello said that she had stage 2A Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system that affects white blood cells. One of the symptoms is severe itching.
‘That was a really hard thing to hear. I was so young and totally sidelined,’ she said.
‘I thought I was “doing all the right things”. I had been a vegetarian since I was 14, I did intramural sports in college, I would go out for runs.
‘To be honest, my first thought was: “I don’t wanna die. There’s so much life left to be lived and I want to be here to do it.”‘
WHAT IS HODGKIN’S LYMPHOMA?
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is cancer of the B lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell found in the lymphatic system.
Clear fluid called lymph flows through the lymphatic vessels and contains infection-fighting white blood cells known as lymphocytes.
In lymphoma, these lymphocytes start to multiply abnormally and begin to collect in certain parts of the lymphatic system, such as the lymph nodes.
The most common symptom is a painless swelling in a gland, most commonly in the neck, armpit or groin.
Other symptoms include:
- Persistent fatigue
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Severe itching
The cancer is most common in people between the ages of 15 and 40 or who are older than 55. More men than women are affected.
Treatment usually comes in the form of either chemotherapy, radiation treatment or a bone marrow (stem cell) transplant.
It is one of the most easily treatable forms of cancer. The one-year survival rate for all patients is about 92 percent. The five-year survival rate is about 86 percent.
Source: Mayo Clinic
Chiarello immediately began a standard course of treatment, which involved six months of chemotherapy administered biweekly.
‘I was still working full-time. Every other Thursday morning I would go in and I would usually take that following Monday off,’ she said.
‘I was usually high from steroids and I would crash over the weekend, just exhausted.’
In a show of support, Chiarello’s friends signed up for the Nike Women’s Marathon, held in San Francisco that year to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Chiarello says she cheered her friends on from the sideline and, after she went into remission in August 2008, she decide to train for and run a half-marathon in January 2009 to raise further funds.
However, the weekend of that race, Chiarello again felt a lump in her collarbone.
‘I felt it in the same spot and I was like: “Oh no could it be back?”‘ she said.
She ran in the race before a scan confirmed that her cancer had indeed returned.
This time Chiarello received a much more aggressive treatment plan, starting in February.
First, she underwent two rounds of conditioning chemotherapy treatment with a drug known as ICE. Next was two rounds of radiation.
Then doctors performed an autologous bone marrow, or stem cell, transplant. Stem cells are removed from you and stored in a freeze while you undergo high-dose chemotherapy, which Chiarello underwent.
After the high-dose chemotherapy is over, your stems cells are put back in so your body can make new, healthy blood cells.
‘The second time I was going through this, I was like: “Wow the first time so easy compared to this,”‘ Chiarello said.
‘I was in isolation for six weeks, which means you can’t leave the room because you have a very compromised immune system and your visitors are limited.’
Chiarello said she struggled with high fevers and she had barely any appetite, losing close to 20 pounds over the course of her treatment.
‘My throat was in so much pain that it hurt to swallow my own saliva, so I had this spray to numb he back of my throat,’ she said.
‘Water tasted terrible so had I had to drink watered down Gatorade. And the only thing I could eat was mushy pancakes, which probably lasted until a few months after I left the hospital.’
She spent her 25th birthday, on April 17, in isolation in the hospital, and was finally cleared to leave in May.
In remission for a second time, Chiarello said it took her about a year after her transplant to adjust to her ‘new normal’. She decided to attend fitness classes to regain her strength.
After feeling a lump in her collarbone again, Chiarello learned in January 2009 that her cancer had returned again. This time, she underwent an aggressive treatment of radiation, stem-cell transplant and high-dose chemo in order to treat it. Pictured: Chiarello, left and right, in 2009
Beating cancer twice inspired Chiarello (pictured) to become a fitness instructor, where she often holds classes to raise money for cancer research. She’s also run several half-marathons and two full marathons, raising more than $75,000 for various charities, she says
‘I was quite weak for a long time. During chemotherapy, getting out of bed was a great victory so I wanted to become stronger,’ she said.
She spent five years attending SoulCycle or taking boutique fitness classes at Exhale. Soon her teachers encouraged her to become an instructor, and so she did.
In January 2015, Chiarello founded her own company, Chi Chi Life, which, according to her website, mixes her passions of fitness, fundraising, and cancer advocacy.
‘I wanted to craft a business that made sense for me. So even now I speak at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where I was treated the second time and work with patients,’ she said.
‘It’s so rewarding and I remember how helpful it is was for me when I was a patient to talk to people who had made it to the other side. It shows you can get through it and community is everything.’
Inspired to instill that ‘sense of community’ that she felt during her first marathon, Chiarello continues to run marathons to raise money for cancer research.
So far, she’s run several half-marathons and two full marathons, and says she’s raised more than $75,000 for various charities.