Defying the diagnosis

Yuxing Zheng

He bounced into the Jones Residential College’s Great Room with a bright smile, and the gloom in the nearly empty room was replaced with friendly chatter and energy. Anyone would think he just won the lottery, but he will readily admit that he drew the unlucky number.

Jason Nellis has cancer.

Nellis, a Communication sophomore, was diagnosed Sept. 5 with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic tissues that causes swollen lymph nodes. He is taking Fall Quarter off to undergo chemotherapy at home in Maryland but plans to return for Winter Quarter.

Still, Nellis said, he missed NU and his friends so much that he returned for a weeklong visit and gave a fireside talk about his illness at Jones on Oct. 19.

Nellis said he realizes the seriousness of cancer but insists he’s no victim.

“I got lucky,” he said. “I got a disease that’s almost 100 percent curable.”

Early detection of a lump near his collar bone this summer led to a Stage 2 diagnosis, which has a 90 to 95 percent cure rate, according to the American Cancer Society’s Web site.

Nellis started his treatments in September and is in the midst of 24 weeks of chemotherapy. The sessions, which he attends every other Monday, leave him bedridden from exhaustion and battling sores in his mouth and throat and a tingling sensation in his arms. The chemotherapy will end in mid-February, but in March he will begin four weeks of radiation therapy.

But Nellis hasn’t let his treatments prevent him from living a full life. He’s spending his time co-directing “A Streetcar Named Desire” at his high school.

Nellis said he wasn’t always able to keep things in perspective and stay optimistic. When the diagnosis was made, he didn’t want to accept it — even uttering the word “cancer” was a struggle.

“Your first reaction is death,” he said. “My assumption was I was going to die. I wasn’t going to see my college graduation.”

Nellis said he woke up feeling good the first few days after his diagnosis, but then the reality of his situation sunk in.

“I was overwhelmed,” he said. “I couldn’t leave my bed for a good 10 to 15 minutes because I was crying.”

Christina Ferguson, Nellis’ mother, was physically ill the first few days after the diagnosis and described it as “the most devastating thing I’d heard in my life.

“I felt like I’d been hit by a car,” she said.

But seeing her son’s optimism about his future helped Ferguson deal with the diagnosis.

She watches Nellis kid around with other cancer patients and joke with nurses. Ferguson said Nellis told her he was glad he, and not another relative, got cancer.

“He said that of all the people in our family, he knew he was the one who could handle it,” she said with her eyes glistening. “I’ve never been prouder of him in my whole life.”

Nellis credits his family for supporting him and suggests that cancer patients who lack that strong support should seek age-specific cancer support groups.

Although many people think of cancer as a disease that affects older people, Nellis said there are support systems out there for young patients. Some support groups cost money, but most — including online groups — are free and are tailored to terminal and nonterminal cancer diagnoses.

Nellis’ friends also provide tremendous support and are eager to welcome him back in January.

“It’s been weird being here without him and knowing why he isn’t here,” said Josh Lesser, a Communication sophomore. “It’s not something I was prepared for.”

Nellis said he can’t wait to be back at NU. He plans to take three classes Winter Quarter while finishing treatment and will direct “The Taming of the Shrew” in the spring.

“I’m excited to come back and live my life,” he said. “This is my home.”