From Pandemic Struggles to Triumph: 24-Year-Old Carcinoma Survivor Finds New Life as Young Adult

For most 23-year-olds, starting careers out of college and getting acclimated to the "real world' is difficult enough without a global pandemic and cancer diagnosis. Yet that's exactly what happened to Antioch resident Rhiannon Barone.

In November of 2021, while performing her nightly skincare routine, Barone noticed a lump beneath her jaw. Though initially thinking it was a swollen lymph node due to her recent COVID-19 booster shot, her gut told her to seek out medical advice.

After advocating for extensive testing, Barone underwent an ultrasound, two biopsies and a CT scan over the span of four months, leading to an official diagnosis of mammary analogue secretory carcinoma (a rare salivary gland tumor) on March 1, 2022.

The morning she and her mother, Teri, received a phone call from their ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor urging them to come in, she felt deep down the results would confirm her suspicions. With a mix of anxiety and determination, they sat together in the doctor's office, ready to confront the harsh reality of cancer and uttered the words, "Okay, where do we start?"

Having always been a close-knit family, the devastating diagnosis hit them hard. The odds at her age seemed unfathomable, and questions of "Why Rhiannon?" loomed in their minds.

And a cancer diagnosis at her age was extremely rare. About 5% of all cancers are diagnosed in young adults aged 20 to 39, according to the American Cancer Society.

Four months passed, filled with numerous tests and a rollercoaster of emotions. During those months, she had time to process the overwhelming situation and research next steps for treatment options. The Barone family had built a strong support system for Rhiannon to lean on during these difficult times.

Initially seeking treatment from a local head and neck surgeon in Milwaukee, they quickly realized it wasn't the right fit. As a young adult dealing with anxiety, Barone wanted her mother by her side at doctor's appointments, but during COVID-19, restrictions for visitors were severe at many hospitals.

Luckily, her father recalled hearing about City of Hope Chicago - a specialty cancer hospital located midway between Chicago and Milwaukee in Zion, Illinois - and urged her to reach out. Knowing time was of the essence, the hospital staff set up an initial appointment for Rhiannon and ensured Teri's presence throughout the entire process.

Following her evaluation at City of Hope Chicago, Barone's care team quickly went to work, starting radiation among other treatment options.

The supportive environment and compassionate staff left an indelible impression. Reflecting on her journey, Barone said, "My fear and fierce anxiety goes away when I am at City of Hope It is impossible to express just how incredible I feel when I walk through those doors ... the staff truly cares about every patient and caregiver there."

Barone connected with other patients during her radiation through the Cancer Fighters program - a community dedicated to cancer patients and caregivers supporting each other - and found a sense of camaraderie. Before her diagnosis, Rhiannon aspired to be a music therapist to help other people overcome their own challenges. Now she views cancer as her way of spreading happiness and helping others.

Barone attributes her resilience and fighting spirit to the hardships she endured in high school, where she faced bullying and abuse. Emerging stronger and determined never to be broken again, she surrounded herself with positivity and happiness. This newfound strength played a pivotal role in her cancer journey, as she drew upon her past experiences and unwavering support system to face the challenges head-on.

Rhiannon found her own source of "light' during her diagnosis and treatments. She wore a crown and cape stating, "Never Stop Fighting' during each hospital visit to remind herself and fellow patients to never give up. Teri, Rhiannon's closest confidante since birth, remains her pillar of strength. Throughout Barone's cancer journey and struggles with mental health, which were exacerbated by her diagnosis, her mother has been there every step of the way to ensure she had the right care.

Today, almost a year into remission, Barone visits City of Hope Chicago for regular checkups and continues to receive clear cancer scans. She is passionate about encouraging others, especially young adults facing similar situations, to pay attention to their bodies, trust their instincts and empower themselves with a second opinion.

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