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Story of Hope – Mariska Schultz Cancer Survivor Overcomes Cancer in her Teens

Mariska Schultz

View recording of CANSA TLC Webinar (Thursday 9 February 2023) to find out more about supporting teens and young adults with cancer and hear Mariska’s story…

Mariska is excited about TLC’s offering to support teens and young adults with cancer:

“Having a programme that supports teenagers and young adults would have empowered me to handle the stresses, family and emotional aspects of this disease a lot better…”

I am Mariska Schultz, I’m 27 years old and I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was 15 years old. As any teenager would, I was uncertain about what this disease is. I could see by the tears and fear in my parents’ eyes that it wasn’t anything good. At age 15, one has rarely heard about the big C word, never mind chemo and radiation therapy.

I began my journey as a very uncertain girl surrounded by doctors, nurses, concerned family members, and friends. I was often referred to as “the girl with cancer”, because how often does a high school girl get cancer?

Stares and concerned comments followed me everywhere, especially when my hair started falling out and the effects of the chemo and radiation therapy were visible to everyone.

For me, losing my hair was one of the hardest things I have ever had to endure, and as a teenager, some kids can be mean. I remember a school kid hugged me and said, “Oh no, now I’ll get cancer.” I was horrified, but the truth is, the teenagers around us don’t know how to deal with such a serious disease.

This first year with cancer, had to be the worst for me, as everything was new and uncertain, I lost a lot of friends as I was not in school for days and later weeks at a time. My white blood count was often not high enough and I had to get injections, which would lead to sore legs. It was a lonely year, but also a blessed year as many people around us reached out to my parents to help them financially and emotionally.

My journey continued for 4 years, I did the first round of chemo and radiation therapy and was in remission for a year, and then unfortunately a scan picked up cancer again. I started chemo and radiation again, but this time in a more advanced setting, meaning a stronger and different dose of cancer. This time, I didn’t lose my hair and I was overjoyed at the fact. I met some amazing people, young ones that were around the same age as me. That helped me a lot. Unfortunately, I also lost two of my friends that were with me during this time.

My journey continued as after this intense period of chemo, where I was booked into the hospital for four days while I received the chemo, and radiation therapy, I was not in remission yet. And then it was time for the next step, a bone marrow transplant. I was concerned with a whole list of new things, having children one day, being one of them. By this time, I was in my final year of high school and turning 18 that year. I’ve made wonderful friends, who supported me and encouraged me, at this age teenagers are a bit more mature.

I received the bone marrow transplant after a third round of chemo in Cape Town, in the same hospital where I received my second round. This time I lost all my hair. It was slow and steady at first, but then one morning I got up, picked up my hairbrush and when I lifted it to my hair, a whole section of my hair came out with the brush and I was broken. We called one of our friends and she came to shave off my hair.

Doing this was less traumatic than losing bit by bit every day. After the chemo sessions, I finally received a bone marrow transplant. I was in isolation and the people that wanted to see me had to wear special clothing, but I tried to keep up with school work and could still write my matric end exam at the end of the year. My mother, family, and friends were by my side through everything and I can honestly say that I was blessed with some of the best friends.

Then it was time for university and I was so glad to get away from everyone that knew me as “the girl with cancer”! From here everything started to look up, I still had to go for my yearly scan, and I still get scared every time I go, but life is a lot better.

Sometimes my mother asks me about something that happened during those 4 years, and I cannot remember it. It is amazing how our brains process trauma and helps us be resilient. But sometimes I smell something or hear a certain song, and I’m right back in that space where I previously heard it. For example, my mother doesn’t wear the perfume she used to when I got chemo, because my brain connects it to that moment in our lives. Something else that we realized a bit later is that I didn’t really cry during those 4 years, because every time I would cry, my mother would start crying and I would make myself stop because I was trying to be strong for her. But now, I cry easily when I speak about what happened.

We have to remember that cancer does not define us, it is merely something that happens to us. And we become strong, empathetic, emotionally intelligent adults that still struggle with everyday things, but we have overcome so much already, that it doesn’t really compare to everyday things. We also have to remember that our parents, friends, and family also have some trauma from this experience, because they fear for us and the outcome is mostly out of their hands. This experience is part of becoming who we are meant to be and we can choose how we want to live our lives after cancer. We can choose to forget about it completely or we can choose to embrace the lessons and help others. And we can change our minds, I know for me, I didn’t want to talk about it for a long time, but after a year or so, I changed my mind and I chose to embrace what happened to me.

I want to leave you with just one phrase, I feel like it is something to live by when going through tough times and hardship. It is: “One day at a time”, don’t fret too much about tomorrow, but get through today in good health.

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