While being treated for  cancer, a teenager finds her mission in life: to help care for others like herself. 

Cincinnati native Crysta Jensen Clements experienced the usual coughs and runny noses that accompany childhood. She was never seriously ill. Her family had no history of cancer. But during her senior year in high school, a lump by Crysta’s ear led to a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

This cancer begins in the immune system and can spread to nearly any other part of the body. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 63,000 Americans are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma each year. It can grow quickly, but often responds well to chemotherapy treatment.

Crysta’s diagnosis came after her pediatrician sent her to Cincinnati Children’s. It was just before Christmas in 2001 and Crysta was 18 years old. Treatment was scheduled for after the holidays, but persistent headaches sent her in early. She was admitted on Christmas Eve and started treatment that day. Crysta began an intensive two-year treatment program, which included one year of intense chemotherapy followed by one year of maintenance chemotherapy.

That meant spending much of her senior year in the hospital. “I missed a lot of school, but my teachers were understanding,” Crysta explains. So were her doctors. She says they teamed up with her throughout her treatment so she could go on her senior trip, be at her prom and walk in her graduation ceremony. “They worked with me to do the things I wanted to do so I could stay a normal teenager,” she says.

Sparking an Interest

During Crysta’s treatment she became close with many of her caregivers. One of those was a nuclear medicine technologist, which is an occupation in the field of diagnostic imaging and involves performing and reading bone scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans and the like. Crysta had long been attracted to the medical field but was uncertain of her focus. The more she talked with this technologist, the more interested she became in the career.

She now works for that very person who inspired her as a patient to go into the field. After earning a Bachelor of Science in advanced medical imaging technology from the University of Cincinnati, she met her goal of getting a job with the hospital where she underwent her own cancer treatments. She’s been an employee at Cincinnati Children’s for almost four years now. “It’s nice working with the people who I saw as a patient and seeing things from the other side,” she says. And she particularly enjoys building a relationship with the patients whose situations she can understand so well.

Facing the Unknown

Throughout Crysta’s fight with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she was dating her high school sweetheart. They later married. Both knew it could be a challenge for Crysta to get pregnant due to her treatments. The serious side effects of cancer drugs are widely known. They range from vomiting and hair loss to bleeding problems and appetite changes. The drugs can devastate cells – both the bad ones and the good ones.

There was no way of knowing, Crysta was told, how the chemotherapy would affect her fertility. So she and her husband were thrilled when Crysta became pregnant with little difficulty. They welcomed a son, Oliver, into their family in December of 2009. She beams when she mentions his name and says about motherhood, “It’s everything I could ask for.”

‘They Really Care’

Crysta is now a cancer survivor and attends the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Cancer Survivor Center at Cincinnati Children’s. She enjoys returning each year for her annual checkup and visiting with the caregivers she got to know so well during her time at the medical center. “Even though I was 18 when this happened, I’m so happy that I could go to Cincinnati Children’s instead of an adult hospital,” Crysta says. “The doctors and nurses really care, and they know how to treat teenagers like teenagers, not kids.”

As strange as it may sound, she’s glad she went through the experience. “It shaped who I am and made me strong,” she says. “I wouldn’t change it for the world because it made me a better person.”

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