Fighting cancer, following dreams
CMU students share stories of resilience
Mount Pleasant native Olivia Geisthardt had big plans following high school graduation: spend a year studying abroad in Germany, then return home to begin college at Central Michigan University. But four months into her 10-month stay overseas, Geisthardt’s plans changed drastically.
Doctors initially thought Geisthardt was suffering from a pinched nerve, Geisthardt said. An MRI showed something different.
“They noticed that I had a six-inch cyst on one of my ovaries, so they did surgery to take that out. Then they did a biopsy on it and realized that it was, in fact, cancer,” she said.
Geisthardt was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive germ cell cancer and immediately began chemotherapy in Germany. Once she returned stateside, she continued treatment at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.
The best-laid plans
Five months earlier, Ethan Conley was fresh off graduation from Hartland High School with some big plans of his own.
“Everything was looking up in the world,” Conley recalled. “I was going to Central on my Centralis Scholarship. I was excited!”
Following a family vacation, Conley’s eye had swollen shut due to what was first diagnosed as a bug bite. But after a second opinion, Conley’s pediatrician urged him to rush to the hospital for imaging.
“I was in the hospital for three to five days. That was my first hospital stay ever. It was new and scary,” Conley said. “By the end of that week, they realized it was cancer.”
Doctors found three tumors: one near Conley’s temple and two in his abdomen. Conley was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a rare, fast-growing blood cancer. Doctors planned six rounds of treatment over the next six months at Mott Children’s Hospital.
“I was in a lot of pain – like morphine-level pain,” recalled Conley. “But by round two, everything was gone. They had a plan that worked, so they did all six rounds to make sure everything was gone.”
Finding a community to lift each other up
While Conley and Geisthardt’s treatments never overlapped, a school liaison at Mott noticed a lot of similarities in their files and connected them. As luck would have it, not only did they both speak German, but they also planned to attend CMU in the fall of 2022 and were set to live in the same residence hall – on the same floor.
“Ethan lives two doors down from me, so it’s super close and it’s nice to have someone to go and hang out with,” said Geisthardt. “He didn’t have an experience with radiation, so what I’m going through now is new to both of us. But he’s still super helpful and supportive.”
“It’s that same general set of shared experiences that to other people is insanity. But she and I can sit and talk and joke about it,” said Conley “We can talk freely about our diagnosis and not have to worry about having to explain something, or not have to worry about offending the other person. It’s been great so far.”
A change in outlook and studies
Geisthardt continued chemotherapy until just before fall classes started and is now undergoing radiation treatment. She’s thankful for the support from her professors as she continues treatment and begins her studies with a focus on event management and German.
“I always wanted to go into event management, but [my cancer diagnosis] may change the type of events that I want to plan,” said Geisthardt. “I may want to plan more pediatric cancer fundraisers or galas, or any type of thing like that. So, it’s made me more specialized in what I want to do.”
Conley originally thought he’d go to school to one day work at a surveying company. But after going through chemotherapy and treatment, he came to a better understanding of where his heart truly lies.
“I’m going for political science. It’s such a broad field and you can advocate for so many people,” said Conley. “And there’s so much that you can do with political science and German abroad or even at home…so it was just one of those things where life is short and you need to follow your dreams.”
Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
More than 15,000 children under the age of 19 are diagnosed with cancer in the United States each year. While rare, childhood cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death past infancy in children and adolescents. September is officially recognized as National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month with advocacy groups, healthcare institutions, patients and families raising awareness for childhood cancer. For more info on childhood cancer, visit the National Cancer Institute at cancer.gov.