When Ivelisse Mandato, MCAS ’20, thinks of her senior year of high school, she thinks of baseball caps and beanies, adding two more rounds of treatment, being mistaken for a boy, not participating in gym. Nausea. Biopsies. Blood transfusions. six months.
For most teenagers, senior year is consumed with numerous obligations—courses for the last sitting of the ACT or SAT, college applications, sports, and social activities. But Mandato is not like most teenagers. For her, it was marked by her diagnosis of Hogdkin’s lymphoma.
That summer, Mandato started suffering from fatigue and blue discoloration in her extremities after exercise, and it became clear that something was wrong. The cancer isn’t always easily detectable in teenagers, since it is often masked as normal side effects of the stress and pressure that adolescents in high school or college undergo.
Following her diagnosis, Mandato was sent to the emergency room and met with a cardiologist to deal with the mass in her chest that was blocking circulation, as well as to remove the fluid that had collected around her heart and lungs.
While most of these procedures are normally performed under anesthesia, Mandato remained awake for the entirety of the process due to complications the anesthesia posed with the mass in her chest and her weakened lungs. While the thought of awake surgery would have overwhelmed most people, Mandato, who prior to her diagnosis had considered a career in pediatric oncology, felt that it gave her such a newfound appreciation for the patient experience.
“What ended up happening was the anesthesiologist stayed with me the whole time,” Mandato said. “She kind of just sat under the tent with me and showed me pictures of her trip to Africa, and it was just so cool to get to know her.”
After these first few procedures, even when Mandato was no longer her patient, the anesthesiologist made it a point to check in with her every time she was in the hospital. Through these interactions, Mandato formed close connections with her doctors and nurses—even today, two years later, she continues to maintain these relationships.
As summer came to a close, senior year commenced, and Mandato was determined to maintain as much normalcy in her life as possible.
“I think I needed that sense of normalcy because obviously being sick isn’t a normal experience,” she said.
Two weeks in school, then one week off for treatment—this was the cycle that Mandato’s life followed for the beginning of her senior year. She went to class, filled out her college applications, and, for the most part, operated as close as she could to the way the rest of high schoolers do, despite simultaneously battling cancer.
“I think it was helpful for me because I pretended I wasn’t really sick,” she said. “It was just nice to feel like my normal self and have my friends all around and have my teachers be as helpful as they possibly could.”
As an adolescent with numerous close ties, Mandato was always aware of not only the toll her health took on her family, but also the way in which her peers reacted.
“What I noticed was that people were really uncomfortable around me because they didn’t necessarily know what to say,” she said. “But I wanted to tell them no one’s changed, like I still like the same jokes, the same things.”
Despite this, Mandato recalls always being able to sense the support of her friends as she understood their hesitation to address the cancer.
As a result, Mandato felt more inclined to reach out to people and start conversations in order to make sure others were comfortable and felt like they could talk to her unfiltered or uninfluenced by her condition. The greatest source of strength that Mandato found was her family and her friends. While Mandato stayed positive so that her family wouldn’t freak out and while her family stayed positive so that she wouldn’t freak out, together they created a mutual positivity that Mandato held onto during her treatments.
Today, Mandato now reflects on her experience as she looks at her life both pre-cancer and post-cancer and sees how much she appreciates the life experiences she has immersed herself in—one of them being Relay for Life.
During Mandato’s treatments, a school liaison had invited her along with another patient to a Q&A-style panel for a hematology and oncology class at a local high school.
After a quick in-and-out, 30-minute session with the class, the liaison asked if Mandato would be interested in a similar style event one more time. Thinking she would be speaking to another small class at a local high school, Mandato quickly agreed.
“I remember walking into the school and seeing the security guard and telling him I was there for Relay for Life and he was like, ‘Oh are you here for the assembly?’” Mandato said. “I was like ‘Assembly?! Let me ask you something, is it a big assembly?’ and he goes ‘No’ and I was like, ‘Are you lying to make me feel better?’ and he goes, ‘Yes.’”
Though Mandato was initially stunned by the huge and unexpected crowd, she managed to get up on stage and give a seamless, honest, and thoughtful performance—though she laughs about how it was one of the worst speeches she has ever given and how to this day still doesn’t even remember what she said.
Despite her nerve-racking first experience with Relay for Life, Mandato increasingly became involved with more Relay for Life events at various local high schools, and it was through these experiences that her fascination with the organization was founded.
In her first year at BC, she participated in the campus’ section of Relay for Life passively, but as a sophomore, Mandato committed herself to get more involved by trying to raise more money and sharing more about her experience with cancer. On her fundraising page, she wrote a bulleted list of words she thought encompassed that time in her life. For Mandato, the first week of senior year was accompanied by unwanted pity and finishing a second round of treatments. Leaving school early was not accompanied by the feelings of rebellious freedom, but blood transfusions.
Mandato’s treatment went on for six months. In those six months, she underwent six rounds of treatment, 12 days of radiation, and a number of hours spent being poked, prodded and medicated.
“Going into it knowing that I had this really curable disease made me think … there are so many people who have cancer and who are really unsure of their outcome,” she said. “I knew that I was going to be fine in a few months and just needed to get through those few months to that point.”
Featured Image by Katie Genirs / Heights Editor