By Rachael Hopson
As a 20-year-old sophomore business management major here at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, my boyfriend Corey Andersen lives a reasonably normal life. Many would never imagine him as a leukemia survivor, but that is a part of his reality.
At eighteen years old, he had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to spending the day at Six Flags with our youth group. Unfortunately, his plans were interrupted the night before when an excruciating pain in his hip had been enough to send him to the hospital.
He slept in the hospital bed hoping to pass the time before he was released so he could rejoin the group. He awoke from a nap worried only because he was missing out on the roller coasters, but something else was wrong; his parents’ eyes were puffy and bloodshot.
The doctor entered the room and Corey soon realized he wouldn’t be riding any roller coasters that day. The doctor had seen a similar case before – a child brought in with excruciating hip pain and some similar blood test results. But, he couldn’t be sure. The doctor recommended taking him to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for an official diagnosis.
That wasn’t how Corey, or any of us, had hoped the week would go – who would? Corey and I had spent the week at church camp with our youth group. It was a special trip since our anniversary was that week. Friday, July 24, 2015 was supposed to be our roller coaster day, our anniversary of two years dating. Instead of spending the day riding roller coasters with him, I was left at the park with the rest of the group not knowing what was going on or why he hadn’t been released yet.
Our youth pastor, Kirk Godkin, was the one who finally gave me the news. I sat under the shadow of a roller coaster and sobbed. What a terrible way to spend our anniversary.
Eventually, Corey’s sister Caitlyn, and I went to the hospital in Longview, Texas – the one that Corey had been taken to from camp the night before. From there, his family and I headed to Houston. Thankfully MD Anderson was only 20 minutes from our hometown of Humble.
Going home felt good, but knowing his diagnosis would be made official there made the city seem strange and almost foreign.
The next week was lengthy and arduous, but eventually we had an official diagnosis, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Corey’s incredible doctor, Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju, quickly educated us about this type of cancer and how a new treatment, Hyper-CVAD, had shown incredible success rates. With this three-year treatment Corey had a 90% chance of winning, as opposed to the previous treatment which he said only gave patients a 10% chance of survival.
Even though the prognosis was good, Hyper-CVAD is not an easy treatment regimen. Corey would be facing six months of intense chemotherapy followed by about two and a half years of what is considered “maintenance” chemotherapy, which is somewhat easier than the first six months. The next three years were going to be difficult and would involve many IVs, PICC lines, bone marrow aspirations, lumbar punctures, nausea and losing his hair a total of three times.
To many, this sudden diagnosis seemed unusual, especially coming from common hip pain. According to Professor Heise, “There are certain bones in the body that produce your blood cells, and one of the areas is the hips… and so usually with children when they get leukemia, the first symptom they will get is bone pain. And the fact that he got it in the hip is because that’s one of the main centers where the body produces blood cells.”
Looking back Corey now can see a few symptoms that had slowly crept into his life before the pain. “Two months before my diagnosis, I went hiking with my cousins at my great grandparent’s house in Leakey, Texas, a place that I’ve hiked many times growing up. About half-way up the mountain I got extremely tired and didn’t think I could go much longer. This was weird because it’s usually not very hard to hike. But I brushed it off and thought that I had just gotten out of shape, or had been eating too much fast food. I eventually made it to the top, but I really felt like I was going to die once I got there.” After his diagnosis, we soon learned that fatigue was a major sign of his cancer.
This could have just been a tragedy for Corey, but instead it solidified his faith in God. In fact, his reaction to the diagnosis was unimaginable to me and those around us. While his loved ones were crying and trying to find ways to fix the situation, he was the one holding everyone together and promising that everything would be alright.
“I just trusted in God and believed that everything happens for a reason,” Corey said. “There was a problem that needed to be fixed, and being sad about it wasn’t going to fix anything.”
Corey’s situation may not have been a rare one, but his attitude definitely was. His family and friends speak well of his character, both during and after his diagnosis.
“He was so positive through the whole thing. He always had a smile on his face which made it a lot easier for us,” his younger sister, Caitlyn Andersen, said.
His best friend of 10 years, Adam Carreon was also impressed by his attitude. “Even though it was one of the best cancers to deal with, it is not easy. It surprised me how strong he was. He lived out one of my biggest fears and I don’t think I could’ve done that. He took it like a champ and I’m so proud. He found the humor in it all.”
While Corey’s attitude was natural for him, he feels that the support he received made it even easier for him. He said, “I liked how Adam treated me like normal and not like I was sick.” In fact, Adam floored a couple of doctors with his premature jokes about Corey’s situation, which always left Corey laughing and smiling. “He made it easy for me to stay positive about the situation” said Corey.
After taking a year off of college for his treatment, he then started college at a local community college in Houston in the fall of 2016. After a year there, he decided to transfer here to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and has just completed his first semester here.
He is now studying Business Management and hopes to one day use it in the real-estate industry. We both love the idea of flipping houses and would love to do something like Chip and Joanna Gaines.
Although Corey is in remission now, he still drives back to Houston once a month for his maintenance chemotherapy. He has a busy life because of this, but he still makes time for the things he loves like longboarding, ping-pong, and especially his friends.
Tori Penn, a friend of Corey and sophomore sports management major at UMHB said “My car battery needed changing, and it was really cold and rainy outside, and I️ didn’t know what to do, thankfully Corey was able to come save the day and change it for me.”
Katie Weidman, a sophomore social work major here at UMHB said, “Corey always has his apartment open to his friends, especially to play ping-pong with him!”
While he has been through a lot, he has definitely kept his sense of humor. His punny “dad jokes”, or as we like to call them, “Corey jokes”, are his main form of entertainment. Milana Vuckovic, a sophomore graphic design major here at the university especially loves his jokes, “Corey always makes me laugh. He is clever and quick-witted,” Vuckovic said.
For me, being close to Corey as he deals with this process has been so eye –opening not only because I never imagined having to go through this with him, but also because it taught me so much about his character that I otherwise never would have seen. The last two and a half years haven’t been easy by any means, but we’ve grown so close because of this, and my relationship with God has been stretched in so many ways. I am so excited that his last treatment is planned for June of this year. You can bet we’ll be celebrating that.
Since Corey is now in remission and cancer-free, he is so looking forward to the day that he doesn’t have to make these monthly hospital trips. He is excited to have his life back.
One phrase that keeps Corey going, and has helped him through everything is “Everything happens for a reason.” He has always said this whenever something didn’t go as planned, in my life or his, and I think it perfectly summarizes his character and his perspective during this challenging time.
While Corey isn’t one to bring up his cancer, he loves sharing his story with people, so if you see him on campus be sure to ask him about it!