Freshman year of college is the start of a new adventure. All of that was delayed for Marissa Akers, now a junior, after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Akers was diagnosed after the first semester of her freshman year. She found out on Christmas Eve that she was battling cancer. Instead of letting the cancer diagnosis dictate her life, Akers wanted to continue living like she had been accustomed to. Of course, she would have to make some changes to accommodate this new fight that she was in. The first change came with her academic schedule.
Akers wanted to go to class as much as possible, but cancer wouldn’t let her go all the time.
“Basically I would go to chemo and do my blood work and then whenever I could go to class I would go to class,” Akers said. “But it got so bad to where I was like trying to balance, like being super sick and not knowing when to stay home. And I was like, Oh, I can do it today. And like I would be so sick that I would go to class and pass out or I wouldn’t be able to make it home, or I wouldn’t know where I was at on campus because the chemo treatments were so strong.”
Akers attended volleyball practices and lifts in the morning but attending classes, practices and going through chemo eventually became too much to handle. She did all of the treatment in Galesburg, away from her family.
“Obviously, it didn’t work. I was more depressed from being away from my family,” Akers said. “Going through chemo without family whatsoever is so hard, especially than being six hours away. So I tried to balance it to the best of my ability, and then I was like, you know what, I need my family, I need my friends. And that’s when I went home.”
Home for Marissa Akers is Shelbyville, Indiana. Shelbyville is a rural area with a population of 19,000. Shelbyville is six hours away from Knox so the then-freshman couldn’t just get in a car whenever she wanted and drive back home in under an hour.
Being a freshman is hard enough, but being a freshman and everyone knowing about your condition is harder. Akers felt support from a lot of people, but some did not know her as well, so they could only support her to a certain extent. Before she went back to Knox, Akers got help from Maddie Byrne who had been her roommate since freshman year. Whether it be something as simple as getting her a Gatorade to driving her because she wasn’t able to, they were always there for her.
Akers felt that she was robbed of the college experience because of the cancer diagnosis.
“I mean nobody wants to see their freshman year of college be taken away cause I was gone for two whole terms. So like I definitely feel like I was stripped of my college experience. I mean most things that freshmen students, you know, going out to parties and like smeeting all the friends and like being able to see everyone and experience the full term like winter through spring and having that like, I dunno, I feel like I didn’t have that,” Akers said.
Because of the chemotherapy, she had to wear a mask because the chemo weakens the immune system.
“They wanted me to wear masks on campus. So like my first two chemos I was wearing a mask to class, and I think people like stared at me and it made me feel super weird, and my hair was falling out,” Akers said.
A big part of Akers is fashion and her hair. Aker is dedicated to her classwork, volleyball, and her outfits.
“I’ve always put effort into everything that I do. And I almost got to the point where I couldn’t put effort into classes. I couldn’t put effort into my outfits. I couldn’t put effort into sports, you know, academics, literally anything. My friendships, like everything, was just kind of like dwindling,” Akers said.
Instead of deciding what outfit she would wear, she would just put on sweatshirts and sweatpants and move on with her day. She just needed to be in class.
There’s a lot more to Akers than a cancer survivor. She’s planning to go into forensic science with a self-designed track that she created with biology as a major and a double minor in psychology and anthropology.
“I essentially want to be Dexter without the serial killer part,” Akers said through laughter.
Going through cancer, no matter what form, is a traumatic experience in itself. It changes people, in a good way or a bad way. Cancer made Akers more conscious about what’s going on in other people’s lives. An opposing team had called her a homophobic slur, she thinks because of her short hair.
“And so I was like, that’s interesting because a person like assumed that just because of my, like how short my hair was, not that I, you know, had cancer. And so I think that like the battles I had gone through like get me to where I’m like, you should never assume that everybody’s okay and it’s okay not to be okay,” Akers said.
Cancer made Akers more compassionate than she already was. Marissa Akers went through a lot battling cancer, but the loss of her hair affected her very dearly.
“It was hard for me to be like, I don’t know. Like for somebody to look at me and be like, you’re attractive. Like it’s hard for you to be like, in what way do you think that? Like how do you see that?” Akers said.
It’s also something that stuck with Mady Ferris, junior. Mady is one of Marissa’s teammates on the volleyball team.
“(She is) fun to be around, she makes me laugh a lot, and she makes me happy. She’s very passionate about things that she cares about,” she said.
Akers also can tell when something is off with Ferris.
“She definitely knows when something’s wrong, and she’ll pull me to the side and say ‘hey, what’s up, do you want to talk now or later,’” Ferris said.
Akers learned that you never know what may be going on in somebody’s life. “But you’re definitely more willing to listen to other people and see how they’re feeling and being open book and ready to listen to anybody,” Akers said.
Akers’ last cancer treatment came in July of 2017. Since then she’s resumed classes and is playing volleyball again. Her hair is back, and she’s in good spirits. An estimated 8,110 people this year are diagnosed with Hodkin’s Lymphoma according to cancer.net, and Marissa Akers is one of the survivors. With her fight in the rearview, she can now look forward to pursuing her career and helping her volleyball team win.