Imagine one day you are a enjoying a carefree life as a college student, with your biggest worry revolving around your next midterm. And then, in a split second, you find yourself hospitalized for an aggressive cancer—torn from your friends, your normal routine, your studies.
In November 2016, this scenario became a reality for Angeliki Pelehrinis, then a 19-year-old junior studying biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“My symptoms started as an intense itching all over my body that later became incredibly painful,” Angeliki recalls. “I suffered for three months while nobody could determine the cause of the itching. Then overnight, a Ping-Pong ball-sized lump appeared on my chest.”
A trip to the emergency room and a biopsy resulted in a diagnosis of aggressive Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Angeliki’s pediatrician recommended CHOC Children’s, which treats cancer patients up to 26 years of age.
Over the course of eight months, Angeliki endured four rounds of intensive chemotherapy, two rounds of less intensive chemotherapy, and 14 days of radiation. She was hospitalized several times, and experienced multiple side effects including debilitating pain and nausea.
One of Angeliki’s life-changing moments during treatment was her involvement with CHOC Children’s Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) cancer program, which is facilitated by specialists from the Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department.
“The program is made up of patients who are also going through cancer treatment. We are so comfortable with one another and find great strength together as we experience ups and downs,” she explains. “This is so important because I never felt alone.”
AYA activities include picnics, painting classes, bonfires and the AYA prom. “We choose our prom dress and jewelry, and the guys wear tuxes. We have our makeup done and for one magical night we feel glamorous. It’s an amazing evening,” says Angeliki.
Other memorable moments of Angeliki’s CHOC experience include meeting Taboo from The Black Eyed Peas in Seacrest Studios, receiving a visit from the Anaheim Ducks, and spending her birthday in her hospital room decorated like a winter wonderland, complete with gifts from the nurses and a party with food brought in for her family.
In June 2017, Angeliki was declared cancer free, and has since returned to school in Santa Barbara. But through the AYA program, she remains closely connected to CHOC. “I will be mentoring newly diagnosed patients, sharing my experience. We will be startinga Big Patient Little Patient Program, writing notes of encouragement to each other,” promises Angeliki.
“I can’t imagine going through my cancer treatment without the support of CHOC and the AYA program,” she adds. “Even through the rough times, I’ve had a lot of fun experiences.”