It’s hard for me to describe Halle without using clichés and metaphors that people normally use to describe their role models; Brave, strong, and resilient are the first ones to come to mind when thinking about my sister and not-coincidentally the same ones little kids use to describe a superhero. Though she has all the qualities of a modern-day Wonder Woman, it was her wit, confidence, and spirit of adventure that made me sure she had what it takes to save the world. It wasn’t until her cancer diagnosis during her sophomore year of college did I truly realize the sheer power of my sister.
My sister left our hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of 2014 to attend Emory University. Halle’s transition to college was seamless. She was a standout runner on the Emory University cross country team and led her team to the national championship meet in her first season. She began studying environmental science and economics, and found a tight group of friends.
I remember visiting Halle for my spring break during her freshman year. I admired how perfectly she juggled the academic, athletic, and social demands of college so effortlessly. Everyone on her dorm floor knew and loved her. Her cross country coach talked about her grit and toughness. Halle returned to campus the next fall excited to pick up where she left off.
During the start of her sophomore cross country season, Halle found herself sleeping more and having less energy. “I just started feeling kind of run-down”. After undergoing testing at Emory Hospital, Halle was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had just turned 21.
Halle recalls, “It was a pretty crazy, weird time for all of that to be happening. Since I was over 18, I had to be the one to tell my parents.” Despite our family being in Ohio, Halle decided to stay at Emory to keep her life as normal as possible. Although she could no longer compete on the cross country and track team, Halle continued a rigorous course load while incorporating cancer into her college routine. “The hospital was right on campus, so I would almost just treat going to the doctor as my next class.”
Not only did Halle have to deal with the physical and emotional stress of cancer, but she also had to manage the stress of college. “You’re stressed out because you have a final, but you don’t actually care that much because you just had a doctor’s appointment that was way more important.”
Halle says she would have gone home to get treatment if it wasn’t for the incredible advocacy and effectiveness of her nurse navigators. “I had an awesome team. It was kind of a weird case, I had all these different endocrine issues going on and they just wanted to take care of me. They were exhausting a lot of brainpower and making sure that they were being creative and innovative. Honestly, the majority of it was how transparent they were with me the whole time. That was huge.”
“Though she has all the qualities of a modern-day Wonder Woman, it was her wit, confidence, and spirit of adventure that made me sure she had what it takes to save the world. It wasn’t until her cancer diagnosis during her sophomore year of college did I truly realize the sheer power of my sister.“
Halle’s first surgery was a partial lobectomy. “I went home for surgery over fall break and thought I could recover after fall break and have my finals perfectly lined up. That, of course, didn’t happen.” Unfortunately, later tests showed the cancer metastasized to the remaining half of her thyroid and lymph nodes. “Instead of having this ‘Found out, got it fixed, done with’ (experience), it spread it out through a good chunk of my college experience.”
During all of this, Halle was mourning the loss of that sport that she has been competing in her whole life, as well as mourning the loss of life as a normal college student. I have always looked up to Halle for her ability to use her own light to brighten times of darkness, but even during this, she was focused on shielding me from the trauma she was experiencing.
“One of the things that I would go back and do over is change how I internalized a lot of it because it wasn’t a fun conversation I wanted to have. I think that is something I would do sometimes in the beginning, but then I just realized that is never going to work. If I wanted to have fun and keep my friendships, I was going to have to be a little more open about what was going on.” With our family 700-miles away, Halle had to learn to lean on her friends. “I would try to have fun with my friends, go on walks, go out if I felt up to it—just trying not to set my entire focus on this”.
Halle underwent radioactive iodine treatment that she described as “you basically take a pill of radioactive iodine and for the next 30 days you’re radioactive” to make sure the surgeries worked.
Directly after treatment, she was quarantined for a week and a half in an American Cancer Society home, which was located near Emory’s campus. Halle remembers her friends leaving her treats and presents at her door daily. Our parents were able to come down and quarantine with her after the risk of contact radiation decreased. After 30 days, Halle went back to the doctors. On February 15 of 2017, Halle was declared cancer-free.
“I feel brave,” Halle said confidently. “It was something I did and a lot of it on my own. It was scary, but I feel like there are a lot of things I can do now because I overcame this.” Halle said she learned a lot about herself through her experience. “I learned I can empower people through my story so making them feel a little more comfortable in helping people who have gone through something hard like that or need to empathize with something that is going on in their life.”
Despite all of this, Halle graduated from college a semester early and moved to Denver, CO, a few weeks later to begin a consulting program with Oracle. Halle became a “Love Your Melon” ambassador and is committed to destigmatizing cancer.
“I have a pretty funky scar that goes over my neck, so whenever I see someone that has a similar scar, I ask about it, which some people think is rude. So much of what has helped me is believing that it’s a shared experience.” She says making cancer “a little more normal” helps her and others overcome.
This month, and every month before and after, I have been the proudest little sister. I am extremely honored to celebrate my sister’s story and all other cancer warriors during Cancer Survivor Month.