College students readily discuss how stressful their lives can be. From attending class, to scrambling to turn in assignments, to managing their social lives, young adults have a lot on their plates. Ashley Wood, a communication major at Michigan State University, used to see herself as a typical student dealing with these issues.

Wood takes a dip during her ballroom dancing practice. Photo credit: RJ Wolcott

However, that wasn’t the case. Since arriving in college, Wood had been experiencing anxiety, escalating over time. After months, she investigated why she suffered from severe anxiety, leading to a startling discovery: she was living with thyroid cancer. The entire process would span 152 unforgettable days for Wood.

Sitting near a second-story window of the Communication Arts and Sciences Building, Wood blends perfectly into the student motif. Sporting her lime green MSU Ballroom Dance Team jacket, name embroidered in white lettering, Wood recalls how normal being anxious became.

“Before going to see the doctor, I thought something was wrong. I had been having a lot of anxiety, many panic attacks. We’re talking two to three panic attacks a week. I couldn’t stand in front of a class; I couldn’t walk in the dark; I couldn’t take exams. My anxiety was controlling my life.”

Wood spent the fall of 2011 taking increased doses of medication for generalized anxiety disorder without results. She then went to her doctor to have her thyroid stimulating hormone levels checked. The hormone helps to regulate the body’s metabolism. A buildup of the hormone would indicate a thyroid problem. According to her doctor, normal levels ranged from one to five, and the highest that she had previously seen was 20. Wood’s levels were at 150, which should have sent her into a coma.

Wood underwent further testing only to discover there were nodules on her thyroid, leaving her with two choices: Either leave things as they were and hope for the best, or have half of her thyroid removed as a precaution. Wood’s significant family history of cancer, particularly on her father’s side, led her to choose surgery.

One week after the surgery, the biopsy came back revealing thyroid cancer.

Wood drew a shaky breath, breaking a long pause and gazing out the window upon recalling the first few moments after being diagnosed.

“Why is it me?” Wood wonders. She felt the white-hot intensity of anger coursing through her, extinguished by a crushing wave of sadness.

“You know when you get hurt and you don’t really notice it until a couple seconds after? That was the exact timespan.” No tears were shed in the doctor’s office, but once the family returned home, they cried intensely. It was one of the first times she’d seen her father weep.

After the initial period of worry, she felt strengthened by the support systems around her. Wood’s sister Nicole sent her an inspirational quote every day until she was cured, a memory that still brings Wood to the verge of tears.

Reading Buddhist philosophy provided by her boyfriend, Matthew Juergens, encouraged positive thinking; it’s something she believes made a significant difference. Wood told Juergens about her cancer a short time before they began dating, something Juergens remembers thinking was going to be dealt with.

“To me, it didn’t matter, I knew she would overcome it,” Juergens says proudly. Juergens remembers meeting Wood at Ballroom, struck by her outgoing manner and drive to always help others succeed. Going into the second surgery, Juergens had faith that Wood would emerge triumphant.

The second operation removed the remainder of her thyroid and eight lymph nodes.  Looking back on that day, Wood remembers her insistence to see the inside of the operation room before being anesthetized because she was curious whether it looked anything like what she had seen on TV. Before she had time to be unimpressed, she was unconscious.

Seven days later, Wood learned she was cancer-free. After almost a year of surgeries, biopsies, appointments, blood tests and worry, she had won. It had been 152 days of turmoil and encouragement, ultimately ending in relief. Her sister’s quote, given hours before the announcement, is inscribed deep within her soul.

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

Her successful outcome intensified her efforts to help others struggling with cancer. Wood says her work with Relay for Life, a volunteer organization devoted to raising money for cancer research as well as spreading cancer awareness, is especially gratifying. She has co-led teams and plans to start her own teams both at MSU and at home in the Detroit area. She also has a Pintrest board that encourages cancer patients and survivors to think positively.

“I don’t like to wallow in all the bad things that have happened. What’s past is past.”

Wood also regained her passion for dance. Just five days after surgery, against her doctor’s wishes, Wood and her partner Dan Totzkay attended an open dance in Ann Arbor. Through the pain and breaks every minute or so, Wood and Totzkay completed their showcase to the deafening applause of their teammates.

Wood’s teammate Marirose Sanborn became close to Wood while sharing hotel rooms during competitions. Sanborn said she imagined someone with cancer as being sickly, but Wood was defiant, bursting with fire and energy.

“The word I would use to describe Ashley is inspiring, her story really is something that needs to be told,” Sanborn says, looking on as Wood leads the team during practice.

Life without cancer has meant a lot of changes for Wood. She’s no longer anxiety-ridden and, as a result, has adopted a much more passive outlook on life, “only focusing on the things that matter.” When the scar on her neck gets puzzled looks from strangers, Wood ensures the curious that she hadn’t been in a knife fight. The 4-inch scar also draws encouragement from fellow Thyroid cancer survivors.

For now, Wood is working to make a difference for those with cancer focusing on being a student rather than a cancer patient. She says that while the experience was terrifying and filled with hardships, those around her gave her the strength to persevere and be the person that she is today.

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