How a Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis changed my career path
Alyssa Rieber, M.D.
I’ve known my whole life that I wanted to be a doctor, just like my father. So when I got into medical school, I was thrilled to start down my chosen career path. Early on, I dreamt of having a small town family practice. I wanted to know everyone and take care of them as the town doctor.
I found out I had cancer just three months into medical school. At the time, we were studying the lymphatic system of the chest. As do many medical students, I examined myself to see what healthy lymph nodes felt like. When I found one that seemed to be swollen, I panicked a little, then tried to dismiss it. I was a bit of a hypochondriac after studying diseases.
I lived with my swollen lymph node for another month. Then I went home to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for the weekend. My dad insisted on taking me to a local hospital for a chest X-ray and some bloodwork. That’s when a doctor discovered the mass in the middle of my chest. A biopsy revealed it was Hodgkin lymphoma.
Hodgkin lymphoma treatment begins for ‘the cancer kid’
To say I was stunned is an understatement. Fortunately, I was able to start treatment immediately. I went through chemotherapy and radiation during my first year of medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. My family, professors and classmates were incredibly helpful and understanding.
That was good, because I experienced many of the same side effects that other cancer patients do — including hair loss, appetite loss and low blood counts. Because of my bald head, I also became known as “the cancer kid” during my classes. Neither the nickname nor my lack of hair ever really bothered me, except during the cold winter months.
What did bother me was neutropenic fever, which happens sometimes when patients’ white cell counts dip too low. I had to spend two weeks in the hospital receiving antibiotics and a blood transfusion to treat it. It made me miss classes, and I felt horrible. I also had a poor appetite and loss of taste from the chemotherapy. I didn’t want to eat and had to force myself to drink protein shakes.
But I finished my last round of treatment before spring break so I could go on a celebratory cruise with my family, and I have shown no evidence of disease since then.
Hodgkin lymphoma leads to new career path
Before my cancer diagnosis, I was a regular 21-year-old who never thought about my own mortality — because why would I?
But my experience as a cancer patient has profoundly impacted me. Knowing what patients went through and what an impact I could have on their lives really changed my course. It was during my own cancer treatment that I realized I wanted to be an oncologist. And today, here I am at MD Anderson, serving as the chair of General Oncology and helping other patients through their own cancer treatments. I make it a point to address the emotional aspect of their situation first, then the medical.
My life has turned out to be quite different from my pre-cancer dream. But working here and training future generations of oncologists today? This is my post-cancer dream.