By Sara Bondell - September 01, 2021
Kassandra Nealon always wanted to be a doctor. She was on the pre-med track in college and started a master’s program in Biomedical Science in 2019. So, when she started experiencing chest pressure, fatigue and a persistent cough, she self-diagnosed herself with pneumonia.
A trip to urgent care showed fluid in Nealon’s lungs and she was sent to the emergency room. However, after multiple tests at the hospital, the then 23-year-old received some unexpected news.
“The doctor walked in and said, ‘You have lymphoma,’ and I knew that -oma is the suffix for a tumor,” said Nealon. “He said, ‘Do you know what that means?’ and my mom said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘You have cancer.’”
A few days later, Nealon received a phone call that revealed further tests showed she actually had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and was told to go to Moffitt Cancer Center for treatment.
“Cancer never crossed my brain before,” said Nealon. “I was pre-med, I always wanted to be a doctor, but I never expected to be a patient. I was very healthy and had no medical history before my diagnosis.”
Nealon was admitted to the hospital for the next month to begin chemotherapy, spending her 24th birthday, mom’s birthday, Christmas and New Year’s Day at Moffitt. Her grandfather also passed away from a stroke while she was hospitalized.
In February 2020, Nealon transitioned to outpatient treatment until May 2020 when she was able to pause her final round of chemotherapy so she could undergo fertility preservation. Then, Nealon decided to take her best shot at a cure: a bone marrow transplant.
Nealon’s sister, Sophia, was a perfect match. “She was 17 at the time, and at first, my protective nature did not want either of my younger sisters to be my match. But I also knew that a sibling match would provide me the best outcome. Once Sophia was deemed a 100% match, she agreed to donate without any hesitation.”
Nealon had her transplant in July 2020 and spent another month in the hospital. Severe blisters on the bottom of her feet—a side effect from treatment—kept her bedridden, and she had to do extensive physical therapy to learn to walk again.
Now, more than a year after her transplant, Nealon is cancer-free. She has applied to medical school for Fall 2022, and in the meantime has been hired as clinical research associate at Be the Match, the National Bone Marrow Donor Program.
“I am so lucky to have found a job that really resonates with me,” said Nealon. “While my sister was my donor, I am so aware not everyone is as lucky, especially those of other ethnicities.”
Nealon has also taken her desire to help others experiencing similar challenges one step farther by writing a children’s book. “When I was diagnosed, I knew a little bit about what the doctors were talking about due to my pre-med background, but my friends and family weren’t as knowledgeable and had a lot of questions,” she said. “And once I found out that ALL is the number one most common pediatric cancer, I wondered how they explain this to kids and how much they understand.”
The book, called “Bye, Bye, Bad Blood,” tells the story of Benny Blood, a rebellious police immune cell who chooses to be “bad” and take an unauthorized vacation from work. It is a collaboration with Nealon’s sister and donor, Sophia, who illustrated the book.
“Bye, Bye, Bad Blood,” published on Nealon’s one-year transplant anniversary, has also been translated into Spanish. Readers can buy a copy for themselves or purchase copies for donation to pediatric cancer centers across the United States. All of the book’s proceeds are also donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and pediatric cancer patients and caregivers can request a free copy of the book here.