“It started out as Bronchitis. I had a wicked bad cough and couldn’t breathe,” Kim Dippo, a 21-year-old college student said. Her life was about to turn completely upside down. It was early June, and she had just moved back to Salem, New Hampshire for the summer. Dippo had just wrapped up her first year at Keene State College, where she was studying to become a teacher. She was gearing up for summer and anxiously awaiting her new start as a sophomore at Rivier College in Nashua, N.H. in the fall.
Just after arriving home for the summer, Dippo said she started feeling under the weather. Her doctors told her it was Bronchitis. However, Dippo said she could feel a hard lump in her throat, and knew something was not right. She went to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts for further examination.
After undergoing numerous tests including PET scans, blood tests, ultrasounds and needle press biopsies, the doctors finally found a large mass on her windpipe. Dippo said the doctors knew she had cancer but did not know what kind it was.
According to Dr. James Nickerson, an Oncologist at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center Keene at the Cheshire Medical Center, it is very difficult to diagnose cancer. Dr. Nickerson has been with the Cheshire Medical Center for 17 years and specializes in cancer and hematology (the study of blood). Dr. Nickerson said many people get their diagnosis with cancer when they are being checked for something else.
“They mimic other symptoms,” Dr. Nickerson explained, giving reason as to why Dippo was continuously told she had Bronchitis.
Dippo said it was hard finding out about her diagnosis. She was put under so the doctors could examine her throat. The doctors told Dippo about her diagnosis, but she was still under the effects of anesthesia. “I was still wicked woozy,” she said. According to Dippo, she was “knocked out” for 28 hours. “They told me when I was in ICU. It didn’t hit me ‘til the next day. The first thing I thought of was, ‘am I going to lose my hair?’” she said. On June 10, 2011, Dippo was formally diagnosed with stage-three Lymphoblastic lymphoma, a type of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When formally diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma, there are four different stages, or levels of the cancer. According to an article from macmillan.org.uk, stage-three lymphoblastic lymphoma is when the lymphoma is in the lymph nodes above and below the diaphragm.
“My dad was more upset because I was upset. He cried. It was the first time I saw him cry,” she said.
According to Dippo, both her parents took the news hard because they were nervous, did not know what to expect and they found it hard to watch. “It hit him [her father] when I lost my hair because it upset me,” she explained. She said her mom was making all the phone calls to doctors at the hospital, and that made her nervous. “Eventually they would joke about it to keep me laughing through it. It was hard in the beginning. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t see anyone else go through it. I didn’t want to do this anymore. My family and friends kept me going. I didn’t want people to look and say ‘How are you living with something so awful?’ This is my life now. I need to adapt. What can you do?” she asked.
According to the article “Lymphoblastic lymphoma” from macmillan.org, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system that helps fight infections. Lymphoblastic lymphoma is a cancer in white blood cells. The article states that the lymphatic system is made up of organs such as the thymus, spleen, bone marrow and lymph nodes (or lymph glands). These lymph nodes are located all over the human body. There is lymphatic tissue in the skin, lungs and stomach which contains lymph fluid. According to the article, the fluid that flows through the lymph nodes filters through harmful bacteria, viruses and cells the body does not need. Also, lymph nodes are made up of white blood cells known as lymphocytes. There are two types of lymphocytes: B-cells and T-cells. B-cells are located in bone marrow and T-cells are located in the thymus gland which is behind the breast bone. Lymphoma is a disease that occurs when either of these cells grows uncontrollably. Lymphoblastic lymphoma, more specifically, occurs when T-cells grow out of control.
“June to December (2011) were the worst,” Dippo said. After finding the cancer, she was kept in the hospital for a week and started chemotherapy right away. This, according to Dippo, was the “maintenance phase.” Throughout the course of the first year, Dippo was taking oral chemo pills and visiting Mass General once a month for spinal taps and chemotherapy.
After the first two to three weeks of undergoing chemotherapy, Dippo began to watch her hair fall out. “I was uncomfortable. People would make comments about me not having hair. People are judgmental in college,” she said. She did not decide to shave her head until September, after having cancer for three months. “I didn’t want to see it go,” she said. Once her hair was gone, she received one free wig, which was covered by her insurance. However, she said she hardly wore it. “I didn’t want to wear a wig. It was hot and itchy.”
She said the only time she wore her wig was when she went to places where baseball hats were not acceptable.
Dippo was always a very skinny person. Before getting sick, she weighed 120 pounds. While finishing up her spring semester at KSC, Dippo started noticing herself losing weight. By that time she was down five pounds to 115. “I’ve never been below one hundred-twenty [pounds],” she said. According to Dippo, during her maintenance phase, she dropped to a shocking 96 pounds.
Because of her illness, Dippo was unable to return to school. She was losing weight and was very weak. Dippo said for the first six months of having cancer, she was completely bed ridden, so she was only able to take online classes. By the summer of 2012, Dippo was taking two courses on campus at Rivier and by that fall, she was a full-time student taking four classes.
Despite being diagnosed with cancer at such a young and vital age, Dippo did not let it stop her or bring her down. According to Dippo, the year 2012 is when she began regaining her strength both physically and emotionally. “By January 2012 I was back on my feet,” she said.
It was at this time that she wanted to give back to all the people at Mass General that were helping save her life. So, she created “Kim’s Cookies,” a small business where she bakes cookies and sells them to customers. There are seven different types of cookies to choose from at seven dollars each, she said. “I just wanted to give back to Mass. General for being so good to me,” she said. According to Dippo, she came up with a logo and created her own website for the business (www.kimscookiesfocancer.org). She said the money does not go to helping find a cure, but to helping the hospital provide programs to keep the children who are fighting cancer happy. According to the website, the goal of “Kim’s Cookies” is to raise as much money as possible for pediatric oncology units. Just months after creating her business, Dippo climbed Mt. Monadnock. “I don’t know why I climbed a mountain. I guess to say I could,” she said. She came back up to Keene for the weekend to stay with some friends and she decided to accompany them on the climb. According to Dippo, she had help getting up and down the mountain, but she still accomplished it. “I was still really weak,” she said.
In June of 2013, after fighting cancer for two years, Dippo finally won her battle. “The type I had doesn’t usually come back. Once it’s gone its gone,” she said. On the last day of her treatment she collected all of the empty medicine bottles she had collected over the two year period and spelled out “cancer sucks!” Currently, Dippo has to be checked at the hospital, where she spent her years fighting cancer, to get her blood tested to make sure she is still healthy and cancer-free. She goes to Mass. General once a month for these checks.
After being cancer-free for three months, Dippo was named the honored hero at the Leukemia and Lymphoma walk that she had been attending every year since her diagnosis. Not only was she the honored speaker at the walk, she and her team of friends and family raised the most money this year.
“We raised about seven thousand dollars,” she said. Nowadays, Dippo has regained her strength (and hair) and she is continuing her studies to become a teacher at Rivier College.
Dippo said she is going to continue to raise awareness of cancer. “Once you’ve had it, it sticks to you. I’m not going to stop because I am done myself,” she said.
Shannon Flynn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org