Young Adult cancer: Charles’ story

Photo of patient Charles Terranova on court house steps.

When Charles Terranova was finishing his last semester as a music student at the State University of New York at Fredonia, he had a pretty good plan set for his future. He’d been accepted into a graduate program at the University of South Florida to earn a master’s degree in music composition. He looked forward to celebrating his upcoming graduation and the turning point it meant in his life, not to mention moving to Florida.

But he also had a strange bump on his neck. “It wasn’t painful, and I didn’t really think anything of it, but it didn’t go away, so I went to the school health clinic to have it checked. They referred me to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who then did a needle biopsy.”

Charles had Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that begins in white blood cells called lymphocytes. “My diagnosis was confirmed two weeks after graduation,” he says.

“On one hand, it felt like my whole world was turned upside down. No 23-year-old expects something like this would happen to them,” he says. “I became anxious and depressed, and I felt like it wasn’t fair my life had to be put on pause to go through treatment.

“But on the other hand, I was grateful that I was able to do something about the cancer. My physicians gave me a very clear path forward for treatment. I felt like all I had to do was show up for this treatment, and if I pushed through, there would be resolution. In that way, I did feel motivated.”

Charles put grad school on hold and began chemotherapy at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in June 2015. He experienced remission for several months but then suffered a recurrence the following spring. This time, treatment meant more chemotherapy and radiation in preparation for an autologous stem cell transplant, one that used his own stem cells.

Never too late to change your major

While Charles was an inpatient for four weeks during his transplant, he took online legal studies classes to help pass the time. He is still not quite sure what sparked his interest in law. “I fell in love with the law as soon as I started studying it. By the end of 2016, soon after my transplant and release from the hospital, I took the LSAT and was accepted into University at Buffalo’s Law School. I can’t really put my finger on the reason for switching fields, from music to law. I liked composing music a lot, but I love the law.”

Focusing on his studies also helped Charles cope with the emotional side of having cancer, an unexpected challenge. Physically, Charles felt he could manage it. “Although chemotherapy wasn’t fun, I feel that the side effects of stomachaches and losing my hair could have been worse. The hard part was seeing all my classmates moving on, starting graduate programs, going in to work. I felt left behind.”

It was also during his time as an inpatient at Roswell Park that Charles was introduced to the Young Adult program and the social connections and support it offered. Through meetings and various social events like restaurant nights, he was able to meet other young adults with cancer. “It really helped to have a group of friends who know from experience what I was going through. It definitely improved my life, and I give a shout-out to them.”

Young Adult Program at Roswell Park

Find out more about the services provided by the Young Adult program.

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Comprehensive services for young adults

In addition to social networking, the Young Adult program at Roswell Park brings together several clinical and supportive services designed to meet the unique challenges that patients in their 20s and 30s face. These include fertility preservation, mental health counseling, financial counseling and sexual health clinics to address treatment side effects that affect the ability to interact intimately.

Reaching out and asking for support is important if you’re facing cancer, Charles notes. “Don’t be afraid to rely on the people in your life when you need them. Sometimes you get a sense that you’re bothering people with your problems, but the people in your life who love you will not be bothered. Whether you ask for a ride somewhere or for someone to bring you food, don’t be afraid of relying on others. They want to help.”

He also advises distraction: “Find things to keep your mind off it. Personally, I found it was a great time to take online classes. It made me feel less gloom and doom. I was moving forward, and it put away the feeling that this diagnosis was going to be the end for me.”

It wasn’t an end, but a new chapter for Charles. While the rest of the world seemed to be at a standstill for most of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Charles moved forward. He celebrated another graduation, finishing in the top 5% of his class at UB Law, and passed the bar exam. Today Charles lives in Albany, New York, with his wife, Abisha, and works as a staff attorney for the New York State Court of Appeals.

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.