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Positive In, Positive Out: How a USC Alumna is Coping with Lymphoma

Coast Guard Reserves member Cassie Sulfridge, 28, had just graduated from MSW@USC, the Southern California university’s web-based Master of Social Work program, and was working two jobs when her life was turned upside down.

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Coast Guard Reserves member Cassie Sulfridge, 28, had just graduated from MSW@USC, the Southern California university’s web-based Master of Social Work program, and was working two jobs when her life was turned upside down.

She was out hiking in the Alaskan glaciers on July 10, 2013. It was a beautiful day and nothing was out of the ordinary, she remembers. “I went to bed that night, totally normal,” she said, “and I woke up having a stroke.”

Cassie’s husband rushed her to the hospital in Juneau, Alaska, where Cassie worked as a case manager, “…which was kind of weird,” she admitted. “I’m not used to being the patient.”

On the morning of July 11, a CAT scan revealed a large mass in Cassie’s brain. “That was when my world changed,” she recalls. “I’d just graduated. [I was thinking] ‘What’s going to happen? This is a mess. What’s going on with my life?’”

Cassie spent a few days in the hospital before flying to Seattle with her family for brain surgery. A week of intensive testing revealed that Cassie had Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma, with three tumors located toward the top of her brain. Luckily, the placement of the tumors made for easier removal, and her surgeon was able to eliminate the largest of the three.

Following her surgery, Cassie underwent eight rounds of high-toxicity chemotherapy, and, afterwards, her oncologist was optimistic that the remaining two tumors were under control. However, in spring 2014, after months of being in remission, she found out that she had a new one. “I was miserable,” says Cassie. “I felt like I had been on a tire swing, and I just couldn’t stop.”

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How cancer changed Cassie’s life

Cassie, who had never been a patient before, says her experience with cancer has expanded her perspective as a social worker and encouraged her to advocate harder for her clients. She admits that due to her busy schedule, she isn’t always available to be with her clients when they receive bad news. “When you’re going through trauma,” Cassie says, “you need all the support you can get.”

Cassie notes that her education in social work also helped her feel more comfortable advocating for herself. Being in a hospital after working in one gave her a more thorough understanding of what kind of resources were available to her.

She is also humbled by her experience, saying, “Getting cancer benefited me as a social worker because I learned [how to best] apply the knowledge I learned in [graduate school to my life and my job as a social worker].”

Indeed, those going through cancer need advocates, a family, and a support system, like social workers. “The shock of being diagnosed is enough to spiral someone into depression…there are correlations between stress and chemical imbalances in your body…cancer is mentally painful,” Cassie says. “Initially, I was manic. While going through treatment I would go in and out of depression—it was like I was bipolar. I was coping by over organizing things in my house. Now that the black cloud has lifted, I realize it was a coping mechanism.”

Cassie is now passionate about removing that black cloud and stigma surrounding the disease, and raising awareness. “Cancer has a negative [connotation] … and there is a stigma associated with the effects of being sick. Let’s take the stigma out of cancer.”

Thus, her family established Cassie’s Bricks for Lymphoma, a LEGO®-building competition that will raise cancer awareness and funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “I wish there was a big cause like [there is for breast cancer],” Cassie says, noting that lymphoma is not given as much attention as other forms of cancer, and hopes that Cassie’s Bricks will be able to change that.

She remains positive and faces the last two rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transfusion in the next few months. Her doctors are optimistic about her journey.

Advice to those diagnosed with cancer

While Cassie’s battle with cancer is ongoing, others journeys are just beginning. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you’ll need a social worker in the room with you to serve as an unbiased third party. If you are unable to have a third party in the room, Cassie highly advises taking a tape recorder.

When Cassie started managing her stress, she noticed a huge difference in her life—and the tumor started shrinking. “Thinking positively about your diagnoses really helps. For me, the book The Anticancer really helped me,” Cassie shares.

Through it all, Cassie has learned first and foremost to live life with balance. “Think positively, do your best not to worry,” she says. “It’s all about perspective.”

This article was produced by MSW@USC and was not written by the GOOD editorial staff.

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