When the average college student turns 22, you’d typically hear remarks such as, “Thank God I survived 21!” or “22? I feel so old!” But on August 27, when SMU student Hanna Haghayeghi turned 22, she was happy she has lived through more than just her first legal year of drinking; she lived through cancer and each birthday has great meaning to her. Hanna was diagnosed with Lymphoma when she was 11 years old.
When asked, Hanna says she is proud of her unique history. She should also be proud of the amazing life she leads today. Hanna has a large and diverse group of friends that count on her for her genuine heart. She is also known for great advice that is a combination of Psychology studies and the wisdom she’s gained through surviving cancer at such a young age.
One of the most remarkable things about Hanna is that she never asks for sympathy. In fact, most of her friends do not even know that Hanna has survived such a monumental illness. She has never asked for pity party… The only parties that you will see Hanna participating in are at Barley House or wherever the SMU crowd is that night (And you WILL see her there).
You may know of Hanna because she speaks every year at Relay for Life, but she deserves celebrity status for so many more reasons than that. She is a hero to anyone diagnosed with cancer and a role model to her peers. Here is an inside look about the ins and outs of Hanna’s story.
How and when did you find out that you had cancer?
My family and I first found out I had a tumor in my chest when I was 11 years old; the tumor was 9 by 11 centimeters. We discovered the tumor after my energy level was very low at the beginning of 5th grade. I had a cold for almost the whole year and had lost ten pounds in a short amount of time. Just after Christmas my tumor had grown so large that it started to push on my esophagus and caused me to choke. My dad took me to the doctor and demanded I get an x-ray. When the tumor showed on the x-ray, my family contacted some friends who were doctors. They told us to go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN.
Within a week of uncovering my tumor, I was diagnosed with stage 3 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was treated in Memphis and had 8 rounds of highly intensive chemotherapy over 9 months. I was told it was one of the harshest protocols the hospital offered. I lost all my hair and a lot of weight; I dropped down to 63 pounds at 11 years old. I felt ill almost the entire time and underwent several surgeries. At one point, my left lung collapsed mostly because of the pressure from my tumor. A week before my 12th birthday I had my last round of chemotherapy and was ecstatic I was getting to celebrate a birthday I never thought I would get to see.
As a young survivor were you sensitive to the subject or were you able to spread awareness of the disease like you do today?
I spoke at my first Relay For Life the same year I finished my chemotherapy; I was in 6th grade. After that first year I served as Survivor Chair for my hometown’s All-Youth Relay For Life. Since 2003, I have been a part of Relay For Life Planning Committees, spoken at Relays, and walked proudly in the survivors lap. Relay is very important to me because it is a way I can give back and help in the fight against cancer. I hope that one day no other children will have to suffer the way I did.
After such a traumatic experience, how did you make the decision to leave home for college? Were you scared?
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was only 11 years old, and I thought I was going to die. I didn’t know children could get cancer and every adult I knew that had gotten cancer had died. I definitely have a different outlook on life than most people. I’ve seen that life can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye. I have come as close to death as anyone can while still surviving.
I love being at SMU and couldn’t imagine myself at any other school. I have to live a much more careful life than most college students, and it is sometimes hard to remember that my body is much weaker than everyone else’s. I’m much more susceptible to colds, exhaustion, etc. But this November will be my 10 year check up at St. Jude and my last required visit to the hospital.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m not sure what I want to do when I grow up, but I know that I love to help others before helping myself. My closest friends know that I put everyone else’s needs before my own and work to be the nicest person I can be. One day, I hope to be a pediatric clinical psychologist and help children who are going through treatment or dealing with pediatric cancers. I can relate to them and hopefully will be able to help them.
How can the every day Joe help cancer victims?
People can help by supporting SMU’s Relay For Life in the Spring! It really is all about raising awareness and money for cancer research. Forty years ago I would have had an 8% chance of survival with my type of cancer, but due to research and funding by different organizations I was lucky enough to have an 80% chance of survival…which really did save my life! St. Jude is another great organization people can donate money to; I consider it my second home.
After having a life-threatening experience, do you have any words of wisdom to leave for our readers?
For me, I live each day like it is the last day I have. I know what it feels like to not know if you will live to see the next day and to be scared that you won’t get to experience life like everyone else. I try to always stay positive and not let the small things in life bother me or create problems. I always try to be happy, be stress free, enjoy everything life sends my way, and not dwell on drama or the little things. Life really is too short to take for granted.
I spent the better part of a year wondering if I would get to go to high school, college, get married, and do all the things I had dreamed of when I was young. The fact that I am 22 and have survived something so traumatic and life changing is still amazing to me. Not many people get to say they survived cancer, especially at such a young age!
Hanna puts deeper meaning behind the phrase “YOLO”. She is a classmate, friend, role model, fighter, and a hero.
To learn more about St. Jude’s, and how you can help children like Hanna click here.