When Amanda Blackburn and her boyfriend John were high school sweethearts, they likely never imagined the complicated and challenging path their lives would take.
In 2019, John found a lump under his armpit. He had lost a significant amount of weight but was working two jobs and had little time to eat, so he thought nothing of it. But Amanda, a third-year nursing student, convinced him to make an appointment with his primary care physician.
“While he waited several weeks to see his doctor, a bunch of symptoms piled on at once,” says Amanda. “John had a rapid heart rate and night sweats. He started fainting at work and he became frighteningly skinny.”
To make things worse, it took weeks to get insurance approval for a CT scan.
“In retrospect, we should have come to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center right away,” says Amanda. “By the time we did, in April of 2019, John was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin Lymphoma and the cancer had surrounded his heart and lungs.”
John underwent 12 cycles of outpatient chemotherapy and thankfully, went into remission. He and Amanda celebrated. She graduated nursing school, the couple got engaged and they started to plan their new life together.
COVID-19 restrictions and more cancer challenges
But John faced his biggest fight with cancer yet. Nine months after being declared cancer-free, a routine CT scan indicated it had returned. A PET scan six weeks later confirmed those results.
“John’s second round of treatment was much more intense,” says Amanda.
Following three cycles of ICE (chemotherapy targeted to Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma), and he had an autologous stem cell transplant, which involved a 30-day inpatient stay. Unfortunately, this was right during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when patient visitation at Roswell Park was very restricted.
“John was really affected by the hospital isolation,” says Amanda. “It was probably harder on him than the chemotherapy and the entire process altogether. I was able to visit only four times total.”
Using personal experiences to pay it forward
“Before John’s transplant, one of his physical therapists suggested I consider working at Roswell Park,” says Amanda. “I thought ‘No way!’ It would just remind me of all the struggles we went through.”
But that conversation stayed with Amanda.
John’s transplant was ultimately a success. He had an additional 100 days of follow-up care with Transplant and Cellular Therapy Center and 15 maintenance therapy infusions. John has one infusion left to go.
At long last, he was able to ring the Victory Bell.
Now Amanda works the overnight shift as a registered nurse on the Blood and Marrow Transplantation Unit on 5E, the same unit where John received his stem cell transplant. In fact, she works alongside some of the same nurses who took care of her fiancé.
“I realized that, instead of holding onto my negative feelings, I could turn it into something positive by giving back to people going through cancer just like John did,” says Amanda.
While John’s cancer journey was long and difficult at times, he managed to find a silver lining.
“John enjoyed making music and writing songs during his treatment,” says Amanda. “He plays guitar and harmonica. But with so much time off from work, he really honed his skills. He even wrote a few songs about his experiences being sick.”
John still has maintenance chemotherapy every three weeks. But he is able to jam with his band again. And wedding plans are back on.
“We hope to get married in the fall,” says Amanda. “We’re having a hard time deciding when are where. But it’s just nice to be able to focus on the future!”