Jun 28, 2019
When Crystal Zunino was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2015, she was just half-way through her first year as a new middle-school math teacher in Warner Robins, Georgia. Zunino was 23 years old and had recently graduated from college with an education degree. She first knew something was wrong when she began having pain in her chest. Her doctor treated her for a pulled muscle, then for pneumonia. But she didn’t get better. Eventually the pain became so severe, Zunino was unable to eat or drink. She went to the emergency room and doctors found a mass.
“They told me it was stage 2 non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but all I heard was, ‘You have cancer,’ said Zunino. “I didn’t hear anything else they said.” Now, she advises patients to ask the doctor or nurses to repeat the information, even if it takes a few times.
Her treatment included 6 rounds of chemotherapy. When she noticed her hair was starting to fall out, she shaved it. “I wanted to be in control of something,” said Zunino.
Anti-nausea medication helped her, but she felt very weak and tired most of the time – a struggle for someone used to being active. Zunino was determined to return to work, but she was so weak she didn’t make it through even one day.
Something was missing
By Zunino’s last treatment day — May 30, 2015 — she was in remission. She still had the mass in her chest, but it was no longer cancerous. She continues to have regular follow-up tests to make sure. She and her boyfriend, now her husband, celebrated the end of treatment by attending an Atlanta Braves baseball game with VIP passes arranged by her students.
The next fall she went back to teaching, but she felt something was missing. And then something happened that Zunino says “just clicked.”
While at the treatment center for a follow-up scan, she offered to help a man in a wheelchair get to the chemo room while his wife parked the car. At her next visit, nurses told her the man had been looking for her and thought she was a nurse. When Zunino joked about the encounter, her doctor encouraged her to think about becoming an oncology nurse. Zunino did more than just think about it: Not long afterward, she went back to school. She graduated in May 2018 with a nursing degree and now works on the surgical oncology floor of a hospital.
“I feel like I had cancer for a reason,” said Zunino. “It was to find my true calling as an oncology nurse.” She says her experience helps her empathize with patients. “I can hold their hand and know what they’re going through,” she says.
‘Hug a caregiver.’
Zunino’s desire to help other cancer patients led her to look for ways to speak publicly about her experiences. While in nursing school, she found an opportunity at the American Cancer Society Relay For Life event in Houston County, Georgia in 2017. Relay For Life events are held every year in communities around the world, raising money for the American Cancer Society to invest in research and to provide information and services to cancer patients and caregivers.
As a guest speaker, she described what she had gone through. “I talked about how scary it was to get a cancer diagnosis, and that it’s OK to be scared,” said Zunino. “You think you’re alone, but you’re really not. Reach out to your caregivers and rely on them. I told everyone to hug a caregiver.”
In her case, Zunino says her mother and boyfriend moved in to take care of her, working in shifts. Friends brought her dinners and other family and friends popped in from time to time to help out.
Planning for the future
Zunino and her husband plan to start a family. They know her chemotherapy may have affected her chances of becoming pregnant, but they’re determined. If fertility treatments don’t work, she says they’ll start the adoption process.
Now Zunino is working on a chemotherapy certification that will allow her to work in an infusion center. She hopes to one day work in the same center where she was treated. “My work is fulfilling,” she says. “I love it.”