TAMPA, Florida/ WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia-
Your mid-twenties is regarded as a time of celebration, a time when you’re in your prime and starting to fulfill your destiny one might say. Rica Hudson would say no differently. A few months ago, life couldn’t have been better for this 26-year old originally from Tampa Bay.
Enrolled in law school at The College of William & Mary in Virginia, Rica was recently engaged to the love of her life, Dakarai Calhoun, and preparing the wedding of her dreams. “I was doing really well in my internship,” she said. “I was planning for my wedding and looking for a job. That is basically all that was on my mind.”
Just as things couldn’t have been more perfect, with the snap of a finger, her life suddenly – and dramatically – changed. Right when this vivacious, brown-eyed girl was finishing her internship in Central Florida and getting ready to start another semester in law school.
While Rica was working out one day over the summer, she noticed the right side of her underarm was sticking out with a sudden “pouch of fat” but didn’t think much of it. After all, at only 26, she felt she had no reason to worry about her health. Through breast cancer awareness, however, she knew that one of the things you should check for was, in fact, your underarm. So, when a month had gone by and this peculiar-looking mass was still there, she immediately decided to see a doctor as soon as she got back to Virginia. An ultrasound returned with some results.
“I just remember the nurse’s face. She put a monitor under my arm… and I could see her concern. Whatever it was, I knew it was huge,” she explained. “The radiologist then came in. ‘Your lymph nodes are pretty impressive,’ he said.
Not quite comprehending what she was being told, Rica soon came to find out that lymph nodes are small, internal bean-shaped glands usually found in various parts of the body. From your groin to your neck and underarms. These bunches of nodules work with your blood cells to fight off infection and sometimes become swollen.
But the more she spoke to the radiologist, the more she was put on edge and realized these particular lymph nodes under her arm weren’t exactly ‘normal.’ She continued, “To me ‘impressive’ is awesome but it wasn’t a good thing. He said when you see lymph nodes that big, it means something serious. My heart dropped…”
Rica underwent surgery a week later when she had a lymph node removed from underneath her arm. Waiting to hear back the results of surgery was nerve-wracking to say the least. Another week went by until this soon-to-be-bride finally got her answer.
While minding her business at work, the doctor called to tell her the gut-wrenching news: “You have lymphoma.” More specifically T-cell/histiocyte-rich B-cell lymphoma (T/HRBCL), often referred to as a “gray zone” rare form of lymphoma.
Rica had no idea what any of this meant. T-Cell-what? When the doctor explained it was cancer of the lymph nodes – a blood cancer cousin of leukemia – everything Rica had at that point understood to be her reality was now completely foreign and didn’t matter. Including the fact that it was Stage 1 cancer and she had the best chance of survival. All that mattered in that moment was that she had been diagnosed with cancer and, in that instant, she felt like her life was over.
“My first thought was I’m going to die. I had never heard of lymphoma. He was like but I think we caught it early so I held it together but then I burst into tears. When I came back to the work office my co-workers just held me. I called my fiancé and told him he needed to come. I just cried and cried.”
A bone marrow biopsy, however, thankfully revealed the cancer was not in her bones. But this bit of news only provided a bit of relief. She said, “It hit me this was going to change my life. The realization that my life would never be the same made me cry and cry. That was a turning point for me.”
And so, she knew the next step would be treatment: a combination of chemotherapy and biotherapy. Three rounds of both. Every three weeks, one round. Then radiation for maybe two weeks every day and it would all be behind her.
Only having completed the first round of treatment, Rica noticed her hair – what is such a symbolic symbol of beauty for women – was starting to fall out. With full braids from her weave literally coming out of her scalp. That is when she made one of the biggest, scariest yet boldest decisions of her life: she was going to shave it all off.
“I decided instead of dealing with the trauma of seeing it every day fall out I was just going to shave it off. I wanted to take control.” But seeing herself in the mirror – now as a diagnosed cancer patient – made Rica fall apart. .
“I had never felt so broken. To see your hair hanging off by a thread… all those times I complained about ‘gotta do my hair’ felt so stupid. I bawled in my closet. I felt like I didn’t even love myself. Because of what I was seeing physically and what was to come. I have work, school, a wedding to plan. My mind was running a zillion miles a day. But when I looked at myself in the mirror I felt like I couldn’t come back from this.”
A good 45 minutes went by before Rica’s fiancé finally convinced her to get out of the closet. It was only when Rica’s sister explained to her later that evening how 5-year-old girls in India cut off their hair all the time due to traditional methods, that she thought to herself: If a 5-year-old can do it, then so can I. I have to be strong and suck it up.
Although seeing herself bald with an “abnormal-sized” head for the first time was “terrible,” Rica eventually got past the initial shock and fell asleep that night with her fiancé telling her how beautiful she was.
Currently, Rica admits she switches between seven different wigs friends helped pick out, while other times she musters the courage to stroll down her neighborhood bald. People’s reactions, she says, hasn’t been as bad as she expected.
“I’m more now into my natural beauty. Hair defines you – especially for women. I realized there is so much more to you than that. My perception of self is much stronger,” she affirmed.
From basking in the warmth of beautiful, summer days to dealing with this huge blow and learning to pick up the pieces and march on, the journey hasn’t been easy. Something Rica herself acknowledges. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” she sighed.
Nonetheless, she is incredibly grateful for the invaluable boxes of lifetime lessons she has gathered. From her personal strength (“There is nothing I can’t handle now”) she knows nothing can stop her from moving forward. And from riding out the storm with her fiancé (“The commitment I’m making is the right one”), she has been given the reaffirmation that she has found her soul-mate and life partner. But one thing resonates most of all: “My commitment to myself is much stronger than I thought I was.”
Three months later, with chemotherapy complete and the last leg of this eye-opening journey underway, there is much to rejoice in Rica’s life. She couldn’t have guessed that one day, while working out, everything around her would change. Yet, what this bubbly, brown-eyed, 26-year-old now knows is that she is every bit of a survivor and still every bit of a woman who’s sexy, beautiful and strong.
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society-
Beyond Boobs –
Daily Strength –