Walking the halls without cancer

Pia Phillips’ cancer story, two years later


submitted by Pia Phillips

Phillips with Abbie Nelson ’18, her hair fully grown.

With any cancer diagnosis comes a grasp on the scientific facets of the illness, but what’s not acknowledged by doctors is the abiding prominence of cancer beyond the hospital’s walls.

Despite her two and a half cancer-free years, Pia Phillips ‘18 was reminded of her cancer experience as a freshman every single day.

Phillips was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a commonly curable cancer of the lymphatic system, in July of 2014. By October of 2014, chemo, consequential hair loss, and countless miserable hospitalized days were finally over for Phillips. She says, “I’ve realized how lucky I was to only have four or five months of treatment. There are kids out there on their third or fourth year.”

Whether it’s the sight of the scars on her chest and neck, her battling a bad hair day, science class, or a microaggression that ridicules death, the memory of cancer follows Phillips to school, home, and everywhere in between.

The fear that she’ll relapse is real, and being a lifelong hypochondriac doesn’t exactly ease that fear. Phillips says, “If I’m feeling off for a week or even less, I start to get nervous, even though I shouldn’t, because it could easily just be a cold or sleep deprivation.”

Phillips elaborates, “What makes me more scared of relapse is that the first time around I didn’t know what I was about to experience so I had nothing to anticipate, but then if I did ever get it again I’d know exactly how hard it would be. In that situation, ignorance really is bliss.”

After Phillips’ first clear PET scan, she had to get another one every three months for a year. After consistently clear results, she had to return once every six months. She had her last scan this past February, and because that one was clear as well, she only has to go back once each year for five years.

After five years sans cancer, it’s up to her to notice potential concerns and seek a PET scan, to which Phillips says, “It’s on me after a while, which is kind of freaky.”   

Cancer also remains a substantial part of Phillips’ life beyond her physical health. She says, “Freshman year was designated to cancer, so sophomore year was my first year of high school where I didn’t have to worry about it [as much].”

As a result of her newfound freedom in her sophomore year, though, Phillips lost some of her drive to achieve in school. “I didn’t try as hard as I could have because school was second, which it should be because you should prioritize happiness, but you shouldn’t forget to try in school. I just didn’t have that same motivation because I was healthy and felt on top of the world.” She continues, “As a junior now, I’ve found a balance between putting happiness before school and putting in effort.”

Although adjusting back to regular student life was rocky at times, the immense support from Phillips’ family has continued incessantly. Phillips says, “[My cancer] hurt my family a lot, since it was really hard for my parents to go through, as it would be for any parent.” Phillips adds, “When my mom reads something about a child being diagnosed, she cries for them, because she knows how it feels. She’s got all the hospital stuff down as no parent should.”     

With both an increasing age and cancer survival, Phillips is proud of the person she has grown to become. She says, “I’ve matured more for sure––and maybe matured isn’t even the right word because I’m still a teenager and I do make mistakes, but I know I wouldn’t be like myself today if I hadn’t gone through cancer.”

Throughout her cancer experience, Phillips grappled with vexation and self-consciousness towards her baldness. Although some cancer survivors lose their hair permanently as a result of chemo, Phillips was fortunate to live through the excitement of her hair’s regrowth, specifically “the fro.”

She says, “My hair grew back extremely curly. It’s hard to maintain, and sometimes I miss my old hair, but I love it.”

Touching on appearance in general, Phillips says, “This is cheesy, but in the past year I’ve learned to just embrace what you have. And, if someone doesn’t like you, let them not like you. It’s so not worth your time to make them like you.”

submitted by Pia Phillips
Phillips showing off her ‘fro in Fall of 2015.
submitted by Pia Phillips
Phillips in the midst of chemotherapy, decorating her head with gems.

Phillips’ cancer experience has also resulted in what has become a major accomplishment and hobby: her non-profit organization, PAB’S PACKS. PAB’S was started in late 2014 by Abbie Nelson ‘18 and Phillips, along with Nelson’s mom. Phillips says, “Our mission is to provide cool, custom-designed backpacks with comfort items to chronically ill teenagers in hospitals, and now we’re expanding to camps.”

Phillips recalls the first, yet nevertheless most powerful moment when PAB’S truly connected her with another teenager: “It was our first handout in May of 2015 and two weeks before my own personal checkup. I was in the waiting room. This girl who looked my age walked in and just looked really sad. She was sick, and I knew she had cancer. She sat down right next to me and kind of grunted and sighed and I just told her, ‘I feel you, dude. I get it.’ I felt like I had to go back and find her but I never caught her name. I knew she had ALL which is a type of Leukemia, and I also knew she would be in the hospital for the next PAB’S handout. At the handout two weeks later, I found every doctor and employee in the hospital and tried to find the girl. . . when we had just finished packing up to leave, the girl walked in the door and I ended up staying for an extra hour talking to her and doing puzzles. That was the first time I talked to someone that really got it.”

Phillips also recalls another highlight from her experience in PAB’S: “We were at the hospital doing another handout, and we heard screaming down the hall. It was a girl who was probably ten or younger, and she had a wheelchair but she was walking down to us and panting in excruciating pain. We gave her a pack to settle her down, and we learned that she hadn’t walked in two weeks, but finally walked down to us with the incentive to get a pack.”

Although those who are lucky enough to survive cancer overcome the months or even years trapped in a hospitalized lifestyle, the entirety of cancer never ceases. Phillips has taken her own cancer’s everlasting existence and put it towards an undeniably impressive and extremely positive organization. As a teenage survivor, Phillips is growing up with cancer’s mark on her world to accompany her.