Erica Mantell was entering her senior year at Ohio State when she confronted growing discomfort. “I started noticing these pains on my bones that felt like bruises that weren’t visible,” she says. “So I would call them my invisible bruises.”
Before long, those “invisible bruises” became agonizing pain. Soon, the cross-country runner accustomed to racing opponents was locked in a battle with her own body. “I couldn’t run anymore.”
Eventually, the pain affected every area of Erica’s life, hindering her ability to walk, attend class or even get out of bed. While answers were absent, the pain was ever-present, resulting in multiple trips to emergency rooms and prescriptions that did little to ease her symptoms.
Despite Erica’s suspicion that cancer was the culprit—her father had died of the disease when she was 7—she hoped that her ailment was less serious, as it had yet to be identified.
Erica was referred to an oncologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James), where testing confirmed acute lymphoblastic leukemia. “I was terrified, but I was so relieved,” she recalls. “I had some direction for the first time.”
Her new team at the OSUCCC – James wasted no time, starting chemotherapy the day after her diagnosis. Erica’s mom, refusing to leave her bedside, delivered a simple response: “We’re going to do this.”
For the 22-year-old athlete who just months before was preparing for final exams and medical school interviews, the physical manifestation of her treatment was jarring. Among the hurdles the illness placed in Erica’s path were a blood clot that caused seizures and forced her temporary admission to the ICU and a battle with depression that tested her mental resilience.
With every obstacle, though, came an opportunity to overcome, culminating in Erica’s discharge from the hospital and her graduation from Ohio State. She received the honor of leading the line of her college’s graduates. “I did it. I graduated. Bald, big steroid cheeks and everything—but I did it.”
From that moment, Erica took on the role of cancer survivor, working every day to regain her strength. After a bone marrow transplant, she started walking with regularity. By the next month, she was running again.
The support of friends and family served as the foundation for Erica’s recovery efforts, a fact that she stresses to young cancer patients who may not recognize the need for turning over some control of their lives.
“There has to be a process of understanding that you’re not going to be quite independent anymore,” she says. “It’s OK to ask for help. You’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.”
Erica’s support system includes friends, family members, doctors and nurses, along with her mom and her now-husband, Andrew. Together, he and Erica are navigating a post-cancer “new normal” that includes the aftermath of early menopause—and its impact on fertility—brought on by her treatment.
“[Andrew has been] amazingly understanding about everything,” Erica says. “I don’t feel any guilt, any shame for what has happened, but it’s still something that impacts us together.”
Despite her busy schedule, she finds time to advise young adult cancer patients and work with donors and supporters to encourage vital research funding. “It’s a community that I’ve entered with a whole bunch of compassionate and generous people. It’s amazing what people do to support cancer research.”
“Knowing how much research is done here allowed me to trust them completely,” Erica says of the OSUCCC – James. “I was only able to do that because I knew they were going to take care of me the best.”
A medical student at Ohio State, Erica is looking forward to a bright future while accepting that her past will always be a part of her present. “Cancer doesn’t define me, but it is part of my identity.”
Facing Cancer Under Age 40
About 70,000 young people (age 15-39) are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Adolescent and young adult (AYA) patients have their own unique diagnoses, complications, morbidities and psychosocial concerns. “It’s much harder on younger people because they’re going through major life transitions already,” says Maryam Lustberg, MD, MPH, medical director of survivorship at the OSUCCC – James. “There’s a huge need to have support tailored to their unique situation.”
Thanks to support from donors and events such as the Columbus Mac and Cheese Festival, research teams at Ohio State are studying the effects of cancer on young adults and building programs to help them navigate life through treatment—and beyond.
The 2018 Columbus Mac and Cheese Festival will take place Friday, Oct. 5 at Easton Town Center. Visit cbusmacandcheese.org for tickets and event information.