By Lizette Robles - August 25, 2020
University of South Florida cell and molecular biology major Rosa Fragello was a typical college student. Her 2019 planner was filled with dates for sorority functions, nail appointments and plans with friends.
Like most young adults, the word cancer wasn’t in her vocabulary. That is until the disease impacted her then boyfriend’s mother, who was treated at Moffitt Cancer Center. The experience inspired her to start volunteering at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge next to Moffitt.
In the summer of 2019, Fragello began volunteering in Moffitt’s Cutaneous Oncology Department, before transitioning to the breast program. Once a week, she would sit in the dressing room area at the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation Outpatient Center with patients waiting to go in for scans.
“It was difficult because many of them were very scared,” Fragello explained. “Sometimes I didn't feel like I knew the right things to say, but I did my best to support them and tried to make them smile.”
All the while, Fragello was silently undergoing her own struggle. She started experiencing unusual symptoms back in November 2018.
“When I first started getting sick, there were times when I was sitting by myself in the dressing room and would stand up to go let someone in, I would get so dizzy I’d black out.”
For more than a year, her own cancer went undetected.
After feeling a lump on her hip, Fragello visited a health clinic where doctors believed she had a swollen lymph node and sent her on her way. The pre-med student and aspiring oncologist did what any curious person would do – she looked up her symptoms online and determined all signs pointed to lymphoma. When the pain became too much to bear, she left Tampa and headed home to Gainesville to be with her family.
“I remember sitting in a surgeon's office with my mom after feeling one the tumors on my hip and the doctor dismissed my concerns saying the pain could have been caused by razor burn from shaving. Another PA told me it was probably tendinitis. But I was a gymnast growing up, so I knew this pain was very different,” she said.
Even though Fragello suspected it could be cancer, specialist after specialist kept ruling out the possibility. Eventually through her own advocacy and help from a family friend who happened to be a physician, Fragello was scheduled for a PET scan.
“That was a hard day because I had a lab report due for school. I was really stressed thinking about my classes when the doctor came in and said, ‘Your scans don't look good.’ I don't remember anything after, but my dad told me when I heard the news, I gave the doctor a thumbs up before I blacked out,” she recalled.
Fragello was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin lymphoma on Dec. 2, 2019. The cancer had spread to her pelvic bones, spleen, spine and lungs. Doctors told Fragello’s parents she had a 40% chance of succumbing to the disease.
“My parents never told me that while I was going through treatment, but I honestly was never scared of dying,” Fragello said. “I had such a secure feeling that no matter what, everything was going to be okay.”
The morning after her diagnosis, Fragello went in for a biopsy. A day later, she made a trip to a fertility clinic.
“I'm 20 years old. I was just diagnosed with cancer and now I'm sitting in this fertility office being asked if I want kids,” Fragello recalled.
Though she was presented with several options, she began chemo right away and was unable to work through the logistics for fertility preservation. Fragello underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy over the course of six months. Little did she know that her work as a Moffitt volunteer would prepare her for own cancer journey.
“Many of the patients I met were older and not as healthy as I was at my age,” Fragello said. “They were bald, yet so confident and positive despite their circumstances. That prepared me big time for losing my own hair because I realized, it’s just hair!”
Halfway through her treatment, she received incredible news. The cancer had disappeared. And repeat scans last month showed the same thing – no evidence of disease.
“I have never been so grateful for every single little thing,” Fragello said.
Since going into remission, she’s become a bit of a health nut. She’s switched to a plant-based diet and avoids plastic. She says she’s spent a lot of time off of her phone, living in the present.
“I love to cook. I like being back in my element creating my favorite foods and having my taste buds back. I also love being able to run and exercise without that port,” she said.
“During chemo, I would look in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. My face would get swollen because of the steroids. I was very pale and bald,” Fragello recalled. “But now, I look and think, my gosh, there I am – so much stronger and so much happier than ever before.”
Today, Fragello is back in Tampa, re-enrolled at USF and ready for her last year of undergrad. She is on track to graduate in the spring of 2021. After graduation, she plans to take a gap year to study for the Medical College Admission Test and then start medical school.
“I know I'm going to be an oncologist. There's not a single other thing on this earth I can imagine myself doing besides being with these cancer patients,” Fragello said. “When I become a physician, I realize the importance of listening to your patients. They know their own bodies so much better than any information you’ll read in a textbook.”
As for other young adults who find themselves facing a cancer diagnosis, Fragello has a powerful message to share.
“Do not lose sight of yourself because I promise you that you are still there. You are a collection of your experiences,” she said. “Your cancer doesn't define you. Who you were before cancer does not define you. You grow every single day and you're going to go back to normal. You're going to be an amazing person after this!”