Life changing events: from classroom to chemo

Ilya Klaassen was 18 when she found out she had Hodgkin disease: A form of cancer only young people around the age of 18 to 20 are diagnosed with. For Ilya this meant going from attending lectures to undergoing surgery and chemotherapy.

Text by Lisanne van ‘t Riet, photos by Ramon Mebrahtu

Ilya was starting her first year in Korean studies at the University of Leiden. She finished the first semester when she got some problems with her lungs; a bad cough came along and she was feeling sick. After visiting the doctor she got a temporary diagnosis of asthma and the doctor prescribed her medicine. Only that didn’t work at all. The cough got worse and she had to go to the hospital for multiple tests. The results came as a shock. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin disease, located in her lungs. Hodgkin is a rare form of cancer that frequently occurs among people around the age of 18. Doctors have no clue where it comes from, it is not inheritable. “I never thought this would happen to me”, Ilya says.

Ilya Klaassen (18).

For her treatments she was located at the University Hospital of Leiden and during that period her parents took care of her. She had to move out of her student room. This sudden change from being independent to being under heavy treatment and care, was difficult for her.  “I did not have the best time at high school, so when I could start my education at the University it meant that I finally had a chance to make a fresh start. But all that was taken away from me very soon”, she explains.

For a long time Ilya did not quit realise how serious her illness was.

For a long time Ilya did not quit realise how serious her illness was. Until the moment the ‘stadium’ of her cancer was being determined. “You have Hodgkin disease in stadium one till five. One being the lightest, five being the heaviest. Doctors thought my cancer was around a stadium two or three, but it turned out to be five. The heaviest one of them all”, Ilya says. This meant she had to undergo even heavier chemo treatments, which are difficult to recover from. Losing her hair came shortly after that. The planned trip to Korea, to study at the University of Seoul, was canceled. “I would never recover soon enough to go to Korea with my class, so I had to put that plan aside. That was one of the hardest things I had to deal with”, she says. Hearing other classmates talk about their excitement for Korea was too painful. She slowly stopped going to classes and spends most of her time at home. Distraction was all she seeked and Netflix and online videos became her best friend. 

“I have six wigs in all kinds of different colours”

One day waking up and seeing your pillow filled with hair, is what happened to Ilya after starting with the chemo. One of her former roommates had already cut a big piece of her hair.  They made it into a fun evening activity; Ilya in a chair and her roommate grabbing some scissors. But after the extreme hair loss, she decided it was time to shave her head. “My parents did that for me, now I have six wigs in all kinds of different colours, I also have a blue one. The colour my hair was before.”

Side effects from the chemotherapy are noticeable for much longer than she expected.

All her chemo’s are over now, but recovering is still a big part of her daily life. Side effects from the chemotherapy are noticeable for much longer than she expected. “I am still very tired and cannot cycle for more than ten minutes a day.” This also meant not being able to continue with her study last september. Her propedeuse will take three years to receive. 

At the end face of her treatment she started to enroll in therapy sessions to help with the mental struggles of her illness. “During my treatment I watched a lot of Netflix and videos to distract myself from the situation, but the moment I went to bed to get some sleep, the realisation that I had cancer came back pretty fast.” 

Not only just being sick was a big setback in her life, all the side effects that came along made dealing with her sickness even more difficult. But being afraid of dying is not one of them. “I never feared for my life and always believed that I would get better. I was going to survive this and get back to my normal self. It only takes a bit longer than expected, but that’s a struggle I can conquer.”