Medical student carries her lymphoma experience with her

March 15, 2023
a young woman in a white coat poses in a garden
The part of Hannah Neimy that wanted to be a doctor was fascinated by the science behind her cancer diagnosis and treatment. The part that was living through cancer treatment? Not as much. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Hannah Neimy is a Charleston girl, through and through. She grew up in Charleston, studied at the College of Charleston and is now finishing up her second year of medical school at MUSC in Charleston.

She loves her hometown and wants to stay here as long as possible, but that’s not the only reason she wanted to study at MUSC.

“Having had such an amazing experience with all of the people who took care of me through my cancer diagnosis and treatment and everything thereafter, I just really like the people here, and I want to learn how to be a doctor in a setting where the doctors are so great,” she said.

When Neimy was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, she was told it would be “a bump in the road.”

“Worst bump in the road that I've ever had,” she said.

But now, six years out from her diagnosis, she’s considered cured.

“It’s been quite the process to get here, but I'm really happy to be here,” she said.

A hurricane and a cancer diagnosis

As Hurricane Matthew made its way up the coast in October 2016, Charleston closed down in preparation for the category 1 hurricane. Restaurants, shops, even medical facilities closed for nonemergency cases as hundreds of thousands evacuated.

That left Neimy in an alarming limbo. She’d just learned she likely had lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the lymph nodes, but she needed further testing to determine the type.

“My mom was like, ‘We want answers now,’” she recalled.

Neimy was a sophomore at CofC studying biology, with the intention of going to medical school. She’d been extremely fatigued but chalked it up to all the time she spent studying.

The lymph nodes in her neck had also gotten pretty lumpy, but she figured it was just her body fighting off an infection. A trip to the doctor got her some antibiotics, but they didn’t seem to be helping.

It was her dermatologist who said, “This is not normal.” The dermatologist referred her to Charleston ENT, where the doctor immediately ordered a CT scan.

“He calls me that night and he's like, ‘Can you please come in tomorrow morning and talk about the results of this scan?’ I'm like, ‘OK, that's interesting because that was the day Charleston was supposed to shut down. So that's really not good,’” Neimy recalled.

And that’s how Neimy and her parents found themselves halfway to a definitive diagnosis as everyone around them focused on the coming storm. Neimy’s mom was undeterred. They evacuated to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where the additional tests were performed that confirmed that she had Hodgkin lymphoma.

Hodgkin lymphoma is one of the two main types of lymphoma. It’s found in all age groups, but the largest percentage of cases are in people between the ages of 20 and 34. The good news, though, is that about 90% of patients can be cured. Neimy just had to get over that bump in the road.

Youngest one in the room

At MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, where Neimy came for all of her treatments, she met Brian Hess, M.D., a hematologist/oncologist, or doctor who specializes in blood cancers.

“He is an angel. I could not have asked for a better oncologist,” she said.

From the perspective of a future medical student, Neimy enjoyed observing the process of diagnosis and determining treatment options and learning about the science behind the options.

On the other hand, living through the treatment was rough. Neimy was a nationally ranked dressage equestrian who suddenly had to halt her activity.

“It was very jarring at first to adjust to being OK with not being as active as I was,” she said. “I just kind of had to learn how to listen to my body.”

The side effects were part of that, she noted.

“It is very unpleasant, and you just can't get away from it because it is your body. So that was one of the hardest parts – and also getting used to being tired all the time,” she said.

At the same time, Neimy was isolated by her diagnosis. Only about 5% of all cancers are diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 39, and Neimy immediately noticed that she was nearly always the youngest person in the waiting room by decades.

That led to her becoming involved with The Boon Project for Young Adults Fighting Cancer, a local nonprofit that seeks to support young adults with cancer.

“The idea is just to help bring some normalcy into an otherwise very lonely and weird and unexpected journey,” she said.

The group sponsors a Courage Club, in which the young adults get together for fun activities – goat yoga, a visit to the South Carolina Aquarium, surfing lessons – without needing to talk about cancer. The group also features fitness activities, sponsors a college scholarship and offers financial assistance to young adults with cancer.

Life after cancer

As difficult as life was during treatment, it was also hard to adjust to life post-treatment.

“You're used to seeing your oncologist every other week. You're on a schedule, and you know the routine. Then, all of a sudden, you're done,” Neimy said. “And it's great to be done. You don't want to keep getting those drugs. They feel terrible. But all of a sudden, it's like you're getting pushed out of the nest, and you have to go be on your own. You're not getting these constant check-ins and reassurances.”

“You have to relearn your body because every pain that you feel, every ache, it's not necessarily the cancer coming back,” she continued.

Therapy helped Neimy to readjust to life as a young college student.

Now, she’s studying to become a doctor herself.

a man in a sport coat poses with a young woman in a white medical student coat 
Hannah Neimy and Dr. Brian Hess after her white coat ceremony. The ceremony is a special event for incoming medical students in which a faculty member helps each of the new students individually into a short white coat, signifying the beginning of their medical studies. Once they are physicians, they will wear long white coats. Photo provided

She’s even shadowed Hess a few times.

She hasn’t decided on a specialty yet, but she is leaning toward dermatology.

“I think it's really cool to be able to not only prevent but also help treat someone's cancer in the span of one appointment,” she said.

Dermatologists treat skin cancers of all types as well as a rare type of lymphoma, cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.

And whether she follows Hess into his specialty or not, she considers him a role model for how to treat patients.

“He's just so caring, and he really listens, really listens to you. So that's something that I want to carry over into my practice when I'm a doctor,” she said. “I want to emulate that.”