Senior Mandi Lichtenstein started to feel symptoms during the first week of school. As symptoms got worse Lichtenstein knew something was wrong so she decided to drive herself to the hospital on Aug. 29.
“I didn't even make it through the first week. I had to go to the ER at the end of the first week. I lost a lot of blood and it was just crazy,” Lichtenstein said. “The symptoms that were happening were not normal. And I was very worried and I had been told it was something very casual and something that could be fixed with antibiotics. And I knew that wasn't the case. Because as soon as I started having symptoms, my first thought was tumor.”
After sitting in the emergency room waiting area for six hours, Lichtenstein was finally able to get the exams she needed. She said the doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing all of her symptoms so they decided to give her a CT scan.
“They gave me a CT scan of my kidney and bladder and they found a shadow on the bladder scan, which could have been anything, it could have been a blood clot. It could have been just some weird growth, which it was, but the doctor who came in was like, ‘No, you probably have cancer,’” Lichtenstein said. “The tumor was like sucking blood from the rest of my body and just clotting, and it was just gross.”
After two days in the ER, Lichtenstein was finally able to go home and tried to convince herself that everything was alright.
“I kept convincing myself that I was fine, but then at some point like it had been three weeks and then there were clots and there were other things and it was very uncomfortable,” Lichtenstein said. “And I just was like, every time I went to the bathroom, I was crying and I was just like, ‘I can't do this anymore.”
On Sept. 12 Lichtenstein’s parents drove overnight to Elon after receiving a phone call from Duke Hospital. They had found something that looked like cancerous cells within Lichtenstein's tumor and needed her in for more testing. Her parents ended up renting an Airbnb for over a month in Graham as they stood by their daughter's side throughout the process. Lichtenstein said the hospital was unsure of what exactly she had at the time.
“‘We don't know what exactly you have. We just know that they found malignant cells.’ So it's definitely some form of cancer,” Lichtenstein said. “The tumor grew back three times the size when I got it out. It had tripled in size since the biopsy. So that was less than 30 days, and it tripled in size.”
Lichtenstein said the doctors needed to do more scans to see what truly was going on. She said being a biology major while going through this she was able to make connections to what she had learned in class.
“Anything that I had learned about in class that was coming up on my pathology report, I was like, ‘I know what that is and I know why that's happening,’” Lichtenstein said. “There were a lot of connections I couldn't make, which was upsetting but every time there is a connection that I can make, I jump on it. I'm so excited about it. So I was trying to get a picture of my tumor to bring into class and do show and tell but working on that still.”
During this whole experience, Lichtenstein was still taking classes at Elon, as she refused to go on medical leave. She said she didn’t want to miss out on her last year with all of her friends around her and by her side. She only missed eight total days of classes and said she would do Zoom calls into class to stay ahead of her work.
“I was like the last thing I wanted was to take medical leave because I was keeping up in my classes and I was doing fine there,” Lichtenstein said. “I don't want to set back my life. I want to keep going and if that's hard for me that's hard for me but I'm a very Type A, ‘Go Go Go Go Go,’ and if you tell me to just be on bed rest for a month, I won't do well with that. So some people were telling me they're like ‘The cancers telling you to just breathe’ and I'm like, ‘No, it's not. It’s telling me to keep going.’”
After receiving surgery Sept. 25 to remove the rest of the tumor, Lichtenstein said she felt free but still had her moments of grief afterward. She said she still jokes about the entire experience.
“I am underplaying it, but that's because I'm trying to stay very positive about the whole situation because I'm in the cancer sphere. I'm very lucky. And it could have been a lot worse, and I'm not going to downplay how scary it was,” Lichtenstein said. “But at the same time, I was not as scared as I probably should have been, because I was kind of like, ‘I'd rather it be me than anyone else in my family or anyone else that I know.’”
Lichtenstein didn’t let the recovery from the surgery stop her either as right after her surgery four days later she went out and celebrated Family Weekend as her parents pushed her around in her wheelchair with a bright smile on her face. It wasn’t until Sept. 28 that Lichtenstein told all of her friends what she had been going through.
“I didn't tell people until after I beat it. I purposely didn't tell people I told my close friends and the people who needed to know and that was it,” Lichtenstein said. “There's definitely a lot that's going to go into it in the future. But like that's kind of why I wanted to share when I beat it, because I was like, ‘I know this isn't the end of my journey. It's just the start.’ … Other people shouldn't be going through this alone. I never felt like I was going through it alone.”
She said the response to her coming out about her cancer survival was amazing and hearing from past students who have dealt with medical issues like this made her feel better connected. Lichtenstein said she still has moments now where she is having times from her days in the hospital come back to her in classes. As she wraps up her senior seminar class, she discusses the topic of females and health care problems.
“I was talking about how females are less likely to go to a hospital if they have the symptoms that I was having, because they're more likely to think that the doctors will be like, ‘No, it's just normal menstruation or whatever,’” Lichtenstein said. “That's what I was scared about. And a lot of females won't go to the doctor because they think it's that and not something more serious.”
Lichtenstein said this entire experience has been eye opening and ironic as her entire life she has wanted to be a biology major researching and finding out things about cancer.
“I want to cure cancer. That was my whole goal,” Lichtenstein said. “When I decided I wanted to go into biology. I decided I wanted to cure cancer. Then I had cancer and I was like, ‘Wait, this is not how it's supposed to go.’”
Lichtenstein said she wants all college students that are going through any sort of medical problem to know to lean on friends and family.
“They should tell their friends because you should have a support system and it's really hard to go through alone,” Lichtenstein said. “You shouldn't have to go through anything alone ever. Because everyone is going through something silently and you never know what they're going through and I think that it's okay to share when you're going through something.”