Young alumna fought lymphoma while pursuing college dream
Ashley Bradley is all smiles as she reminisces about her time as an undergraduate speech-language pathology major at The University of Tulsa. Her fondest memories include the group of friends she bonded with as part of TU’s Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars program.
“When I think of my undergrad years, I think of hanging out at Sharp Chapel with my closest friends,” she says. They lived together in University West Apartments and shared indelible moments. “It’s fun to live so close to all of your best friends. I can remember running up and down the stairwells and making grilled cheese and tomato soup on snow days.”
Speech-language pathology proved the perfect fit for Bradley, who loves working with people and isn’t content to sit behind a desk. “I saw a great mix of engaging with people, the medical side of things and the flexibility and variety of the jobs, from a hospital environment to a school. You get to work closely with people on one of the most basic needs. It was a good fit for me,” she said. She also raved about the support the speech pathology professors offer students, remarking that, “I always felt so encouraged and like they want you to succeed.”
Bradley decided to stay at TU to complete her graduate work in the program. As she finished her summer clinical rotation and geared up to begin her master’s courses in the fall, she had no idea her life would pivot in the most unexpected way.
“You need to go straight to the ER”
In August 2016, Bradley noticed unusual physical changes that concerned her. “I just didn’t feel like myself. I was tired all the time, and my face started swelling. Laying on my back, I couldn’t breathe. It was just a strange slew of symptoms,” she described.
After seeing several specialists, she underwent a chest X-ray and remembers that she left so tired from the procedure that she didn’t even shut her door when she went home to take a nap. She woke to a series of missed calls from the doctor, who shared news that Bradley had a large mass in her chest. She immediately went to St. John Medical Center for a CT scan and 30 minutes later was admitted to the emergency room. “The mass was restricting my trachea, which explained all of my symptoms,” she said.
Her physician gave the official diagnosis of lymphoma, something Bradley says you don’t expect to hear for yourself. She described the sentiment that accompanies such news: “How do you even tell people? It’s not a phone call you want to get, let alone have to tell other people.” She admits that she didn’t have a lot of fear around the diagnosis; rather, she felt annoyed that it would derail her academic plans. “I was angry that I’m in my last year of school and it’s going to mess up all of the things I’d worked so hard to do,” she recalled.
Bradley’s professors were quick to remind her that the diagnosis was no joke and that she would need to prioritize her health before her school. “They were so encouraging, telling me, ‘You’ve always done a great job and you’re such a good student, and this is not going to take away from your academic performance,’” she said.
Twice-monthly chemotherapy treatments began immediately, but in November 2016, Bradley experienced a significant setback. “The week before Thanksgiving, I started feeling really sick — more sick than normal,” she explained. “I had a fever I couldn’t kick and was short of breath. My oncologist said, ‘You need to go straight to the ER.’”
She was put on a bi-pap machine while her team of doctors worked to figure out what was happening. A few days later, Bradley was put on a ventilator, sedated and injected with a paralytic so that her body could rest and heal. Tests came back that revealed she had a reaction to the toxicity of her chemotherapy drugs. “I was part of that 10 percent who ended up having some pretty serious damage to my lungs,” she said.
Bradley doesn’t remember any of the events surrounding her hospitalization; friends and family have helped her piece the events together. She spent 12 days on the ventilator, during which she experienced a series of complications including blood clots, gaining 30 pounds of fluid, sepsis and heart problems. “It was a rough 12 days and a lot happened to me that I can’t even imagine,” Bradley said. “I remember waking up and thinking, ‘What has happened?’”
What followed was a long month of recovery, but Bradley’s incredible network of supporters helped buoy her spirits. Her sister, Emily Genske (BS ’13, MS ’15), who also graduated from TU’s speech-language pathology program, managed communication with Bradley’s professors.
Faculty members visited Bradley in the hospital, and Professor Lori Davis even served as Bradley’s speech pathologist one day. “I have a great group of friends from my graduate program who were at the hospital all the time, and another group who came and brought me blankets. It felt like years that I was there, but it was nice to have that familiarity I was used to seeing every day,” she said.
“I was blown away”
Bradley got to go home a few weeks later and prepared to resume her studies in January 2017. Schoolwork was a welcomed distraction from doctors’ appointments and treatments. To keep up with her work, she would take her binders to chemo treatments. Bradley gets emotional when she thinks back to the months of recovery. Tears welling, she recalled thinking: “We were not going to let this cancer take any part of the program that I had already committed to — it was something that I wanted to accomplish. I wasn’t going to let [the cancer] have anything more than it had taken.”
She drew strength from knowing the sooner she finished, the sooner she could start her career. “I’m really good at countdowns now,” she laughed. “I had countdowns for my last day of chemo, last day of radiation, last day of summer classes.”
Even after finishing treatments and receiving news that her cancer was gone, there is still a feeling of anxiety around the uncertainty of the disease. “I am done with treatment, but I have checkup scans. Waiting to get the results, you think to yourself that it could change everything again,” Bradley said.
For now, excitement trumps that uncertainty as she thinks about graduation and beginning the next chapter of her life. “Now, I just get to soak it in that we’re finished,” she said. The use of the word “we” is intentional. “It wasn’t just me who got here: It was my family, my professors, my classmates and friends. This is an accomplishment for my entire sphere of people.”
Bradley says that after what she has experienced, the concept of support takes on a whole new meaning. Her closest friends, now spread across the U.S., rallied together to participate in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s annual Light the Night fundraiser and walk in their respective cities. “I was blown away with the amount of effort on their part, although I shouldn’t be blown away because they’re incredible people. But it still sweeps you off your feet,” she said. Bradley remembers a weekly card of encouragement Assistant Professor Kris Foyil would send, as well as kind gestures such as carrying her bag on the days she felt especially weak.
She continued, “I could go on and on about the grace that people gave me over the past year. It was just like a faucet that they would pour into me that you couldn’t turn off.”
Support also came in the form of the John Zink Fellowship for students with disabilities, which Bradley’s supervisors in TU’s Center for Student Academic Support encouraged her to apply for. The fellowship covered her tuition and some medical expenses, and provided a stipend. “It’s one thing that I’m grateful that I don’t have to think about because TU gave me that huge gift,” she said.
“The perfect place at the perfect time”
In choosing her next adventure, Bradley didn’t shy away from a bold move. She packed her belongings for a cross-country relocation to Alaska to start her first job in January as a speech pathologist for the Anchorage School District. “It will be a big change and challenge, but I’m excited,” she said.
Still overwhelmed by the magnitude of the journey she trekked during the past year, Bradley feels certain of one thing: “For such a crummy thing to happen to me, I was at the perfect place at the perfect time, with the perfect people around me. That sounds so cliché, but it’s absolutely true. I just feel really lucky to be where I’m at.”