Few 20-somethings truly understand what it's like to have cancer. So, when Savannah Buday of Easton was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 23, she turned to social media to connect with other young people with the disease. She was shocked to see that she soon had more than 400,000 followers on TikTok.
"Sharing what I was going through was an important way to update family and friends and to help others," Buday said. "It was also a kind of therapy – helping me to process what I was experiencing. Having cancer at 23 can feel very isolating."
Before her diagnosis, Buday had dabbled in social media, posting photographs that friends – aspiring photographers – had taken of her. After her posts on her cancer diagnosis and treatment, she was surprised when her Instagram followers doubled to 10,000. But she was overwhelmed by the response to the short videos she posted on TikTok. They included one of Buday, then bald, ringing a bell to celebrate the end of her radiation treatments.
"I went from 0 followers on TikTok to 400,000 plus," she said. "That number still freaks me out – the magnitude. Even when I close my eyes, I can't picture 400,000 people."
Buday showed her followers a typical day in the life of a cancer patient. She offered tips on style and ways to cope with chemotherapy. In response, complete strangers reached out to thank her for sharing her story, tell her about their cancer experience, offer tips of their own or just wish her well. "It was very humbling," she said. "I would get upwards of 200 messages. It took me weeks to go through them and answer every one. But it was important."
Before her diagnosis, Buday never envisioned that her life would be disrupted by a cancer diagnosis. Hodgkin's lymphoma is a blood cancer that starts in the lymphatic system, a network of organs, nodes and vessels. A lump on the side of the neck, armpit or groin is the most common symptom. Still, others include night sweats, itchy skin, fever, fatigue, unintended weight loss, a persistent cough, trouble breathing or chest pain. Buday didn't have any of those symptoms. Issues with her menstrual cycle were the only indication that something might be off. But a visit with her gynecologist confirmed her reproductive system was fine.
However, throughout the next few months, she had a couple of spells, each lasting about five minutes, when she became dizzy and then sweaty and clammy. Then one day in July 2019, she felt an intense gas bubble in her breastbone that shot penetrating pain to the back of her chest every 20 minutes or so throughout the day.
"I was scared. I thought I was having a heart attack, so I left work, and against my better judgment, I drove myself to the St. Luke’s Anderson Campus ER.” A CT scan showed a six-centimeter mass in the middle of Buday's breastbone.
"For whatever reason, that day the tumor was irritated or swollen and had been pushing up slightly against my trachea, causing the pain," she said. "I never had that pain again. I'm glad I listened to my body because there were really no other indications." The scan sparked a slew of appointments with cancer specialists, including thoracic surgeon Meredith Harrison, MD and medical oncologist Neil Belman, DO.
"It felt like a whirlwind," Buday said. "You're trying to process what's happening and that people were testing you for cancer when just the day before you were a healthy 23-year-old." In August 2019, a tissue biopsy confirmed Hodgkin's lymphoma, one of the most treatable cancers. Fortunately, it had been found early in the progression of the disease.
Buday pushed off chemotherapy to have eggs from her ovaries preserved as a precaution. On Oct. 4, 2019, she began a six-week cycle of chemotherapy while continuing to work full-time. Completing her treatments in mid-December, she took a break to allow her body to heal before starting radiation. She decided if she was going to lose her hair, she would do it on her terms. She shaved her head to get used to seeing herself as a bald woman. She also enrolled in a full-time nursing program at night and started classes just after the holidays. From January to March 2020, she received radiation treatment. By June, Buday's doctors determined she was in remission.
Today, she feels well physically. In December, she finished nursing school and in January began working as a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit. She continues to post content on Instagram about nursing but doesn't plan to leave her day job as a nurse for a full-time social media role. Her only lingering side effects from her treatment are minor vision changes and some anxiety.
Nursing helps to "put her mental pain into purpose." In fact, she hopes to have as big of an impact on her patients as a St. Luke's nurse named Ann at the St. Luke's Bethlehem Campus had on her.
"I was in the pre-op room just before going under anesthesia before surgery," she said. "The nurse could tell I was definitely scared. I started getting tearful, overwhelmed by being tested for cancer and going under general anesthesia for the first time. Ann looked at me, held my hand, and told me that she would stay with me until I fell asleep. That was the moment it all clicked for me, confirming that I wanted to be a nurse. She was the only reason I didn't break down in that moment. She was the source of strength that set the tone for the rest of my treatment."