Healthy young woman, who had never had a single overnight stay in a hospital before, was diagnosed with rare blood cancer after ignoring fatigue symptoms for months and developing red spots on her skin

Health experts advise everyone that regular medical checkups are the most important thing one should do in prevention and early detection of different kinds of diseases. In the last coupe of years, a growing number of young people are being diagnosed with serious diseases, including different kinds of cancers, mostly because of the ‘busy modern lifestyle’, but also because skipping regular medical checkups and ignoring different kinds of ‘mild’ symptoms for extended period of time.

The 20-year-old Helaina Hillyard, a young woman and a dentist-to-be, is one of those who decided to ignore several symptoms for several months until she was diagnosed with rare type of blood cancer and her life changed literally overnight. Speaking to Newsweek few days ago, she decided to share her story in an effort to raise awareness and encourage everyone to visit their primary care doctors regularly to prevent or early detect serious diseases.

Last year, Hillyard has had busy schedule and she was not sleeping enough, a lifestyle that made her feel tired every day. As a basketball player, she had to combine her pre-dental courses and basketball trainings almost every day. For months, she ignored her swollen lymph nodes, constant cold feeling and repetitive bruises on her body thinking that all those symptoms were due to her busy schedule and the fact she is a basketball player.

She had bruises on her legs for weeks and felt fatigued in November 2021 when two of her out-of-state relatives came to watch her first home basketball game. That’s when she noticed petechiae on her skin for the very first time in her life. She had them on her legs and arms, and describes them like ‘dots under her skin’. Her sister forced her to visit an urgent care clinic the next day and she made a blood test in the early morning hours, a day after initially spotting the red dots.

The blood test results showed low platelets levels and she was asked to wait for a doctor who later asked her to explain if she has been experiencing some other symptoms lately. The doctor was stunned when Hillyard said that her gums had been bleeding when she had been flossing them, a symptom she had for a while. The doctor immediately sent her to see an oncologist, and by the end of the day, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a type of blood cancer.

Having her sister next to her, Hillyard was in total disbelief as her life completely changed in a matter of hours. She is thankful to her sister for forcing her to visit a doctor because if she waited a little bit longer, she risked a brain bleed and death, the doctors informed her.

Hillyard is now undergoing a two-and-a-half-year long treatment. According to her, she had to undergo a total of five eight-week-long chemo treatments. As of now, she has two more left and then she will have a block of maintenance chemo, which is when you can go back to “normal” life somewhat. Then she won’t have to be in hospital as an inpatient, though she will still be taking chemo drugs orally.

“I went into it pretty positively. I had never had an overnight stay in a hospital before and I’ve always taken good care of myself. I thought I should be able to get through it. There have been people with ALL who have been in remission for years and years with no signs of cancer, though everyone is different,” she said.

Cindy Carey


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