Cancer can’t take her down

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Cancer can’t take her down

Olivia Barfield

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Every time Allison Crotwell goes for a checkup, she gets her tests run and then waits a few hours until it’s time to hear her results. For most patients, this off time is for relaxing. For Crotwell, who has throat cancer, it’s a time to do physics homework.

Crotwell, a senior math major, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer only a year ago. Since then, she’s had her thyroid removed, but the cancer has spread to her lymph nodes. Sunday she made the six-hour trip to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for one of her most important visits yet.

“This is the most scared I’ve been for any visit there,” she said.

Today, Monday, she’ll start the process. She’ll go in at 11 a.m. She’ll have her blood work done. She’ll go to her ultrasound. And then she’ll wait. At 3:30 p.m. she’ll go to her doctor and get the news.

Will she need another surgery or not?

She’s praying she won’t, but there are a lot of “ifs” going into the decision. They know the cancer has spread to her lymph nodes, but they don’t know if her radiation treatment has done anything to better the situation. If radiation is working, then she’ll do more radiation. If it’s not, surgery is likely.

As she puts it, there’s a lot riding on this visit. And she’s worried.

Of course, surgery is the last thing Crotwell wants. She’s already waiting for surgery on a torn ACL, and she doesn’t want to have two surgeries over break.

Last time she had surgery, it was to remove her thyroid. She found out she had thyroid cancer Nov. 1 and had it removed two weeks later. She couldn’t bear the thought of having cancer in her body, and she couldn’t wait to get it out.

“Once you know you have a large, cancerous tumor growing in you, mentally, for me at least…it consumed my every thought,” she said.

Now, with her lymph nodes, there’s nothing she can do but wait, which she is admittedly no good at. She likes to have control of things, she said. This cancer is teaching her that having control is not always possible.

Because her first surgery was during the semester, Crotwell had to take “incomplete” grades in 15 of the 16 hours she was enrolled in. Typically, taking incompletes means you have to finish the course within the first month of the next semester. In spring of 2016, Crotwell was taking 28 hours.

Not wanting to lose scholarships, Crotwell decided to finish all the courses to keep her status as a full-time student. However, she said taking 28 hours is impossible, and she could have never done it without the understanding and help of her teachers and her college’s dean, Michael Camille. Her teachers worked with her far past the one-month mark, even into the summer.

Crotwell, who describes herself as sometimes too independent, says one of the biggest lessons she’s learned is that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.

“Sometimes I feel like that makes me weak, but…it would be weak of me not to ask my professors for help or to try to do everything on my own…that’s unrealistic,” she said.

Even through last semester’s double load of two 4000-level math classes, accounting, macro-economics and calculus-based physics, Crotwell has managed to keep her GPA above a 3.5. She’s also an SGA senator, a student worker, a member of Kappa Delta Sorority and PanHellenic Council. She’s still going to graduate on time too.

“I’m constantly busy, on the go. I do too much I know, but I’d rather keep myself busy than do nothing,” she said, adding another item to the growing list of to-dos on her hand.

Crotwell loves her degree program, but she’s looking to stray from numbers after undergrad. Her experiences have sparked an interest in speech therapy, and she’s applying to the accelerated speech language pathology graduate program at ULM after graduation.

Because her thyroid surgery was around her vocal chords, the chance of her having to work with a speech pathologist was high. Luckily, her vocal chords were fine. But that’s when she realized that there was a “bigger picture” to speech therapy. And she wants to be a part of that bigger picture.

Ever since she was young, Crotwell has wanted to work in a children’s hospital. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis is her goal. She’s looked at their website hundreds of times looking for ways to volunteer.

She loves math, but now she’s found a way to get to St. Jude with speech language pathology.

For now, though, she’s focused on finishing off her math degree and her cancer.

Crotwell has mostly learned she can’t control it all. She said when the lump on her throat formed, she put off going to get it checked out for a while. Her advice to anyone is to get themselves checked if anything ever feels off.

She said she may not be dealing with cancer in her lymph nodes right now if she hadn’t waited so long to have her throat checked. Even though thyroid cancer is slow-growing, putting it off still took its toll.

“There’s no point in waiting and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Get that confirmation…don’t ever feel like you’re being ridiculous or dramatic,” she said.

Crotwell wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, but she’s grateful that her cancer “is what it is.” While her experience is a little more complicated than the typical thyroid cancer struggle, she still realizes that things could be worse.

She’s grateful that her life isn’t at risk right now, that she can stay in school, and for the opportunities this has given her to grow.

As she goes through her checkup today, Crotwell will keep in mind all the lessons she’s learned so far.

She may not be able to control the news she hears, but she knows she can control how she handles it.


UPDATE: Crotwell needs another surgery to remove the cancer in her lymph nodes. It will likely be done in the upcoming summer.