Cancer survivor becomes a strong advocate

YOUR junior shares her personal journey to support others

Katie Murphy was in high school when she woke up with an unusual lump on the side of her neck. It didn’t hurt, so Murphy thought she’d slept in a strange position, gotten a nasty bug bite, or had an allergic reaction to her clothes.

“I thought the most obscure thing,” Murphy said. “Cancer was the last thing on my mind.”

According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, about 1 in 285 children in the United States are diagnosed with cancer each year before they turn 20. Murphy had just turned 16 and passed her driving test when she received the news of her diagnosis in 2017.

She was behind the wheel, an enthusiastic and excited new driver, on her way home from her first doctor’s appointment when her mother, Patty Murphy, received a call: “Katie has Hodgkin lymphoma.”

“I was afraid of the unknown, it shook my faith and faith,” Murphy’s mother said. “My priorities changed immediately. I needed to know exactly what the diagnosis and treatment was from experts.”

Murphy walked into her first doctor’s appointment after that phone call with a sticky note full of nerve-wracking questions, but only one kept her busy: “Why did this happen to me, what did I do?”

Soon, Murphy would spend eight hours a day in the hospital doing treatments that weakened her body.

“I was terrified. I cried for a week. It just wasn’t what I expected,” Murphy said. “How did this happen to me? This can’t be real.”

Her life was changing, and it was something she wasn’t prepared for others to see.

One morning Murphy woke up with a tuft of hair on her pillow. Her hair, which she described as her favorite feature, was falling out and all she could think about was what people would say and ask her at school. Wearing hats every day became a comforting way to hide what she was going through.

“I noticed that people around me started walking on glass. People couldn’t focus on the fact that I was sick,” Murphy said. “There was a cloud of pity that I could definitely feel.”

Murphy entrusted her support system consisting of her mother, brother and best friend Lauren Freeck to guide her through the scariest and most difficult moments. They were the only people who knew about her cancer for the first few months after her diagnosis.

“I was there for her in every way. Whatever she needed, even if she didn’t know it, I was there,” Murphy’s mother said. “I advocated for Katie’s education with the school system. I was the point of contact for all information about Katie’s progress until she was ready to answer questions.”

When Murphy shared the news of her diagnosis, Freeck said she immediately felt the air leave her chest.

“I remember about five minutes later feeling like, ‘You don’t have a choice now, you can’t shut down now. She needs you 98% now because she can only give 2%,’ said Freeck.

Murphy went into remission in January 2018, four months after her diagnosis. She rang the doorbell after her last active treatment to announce and honor the end of her journey.

“The whole team was there and celebrated how I did something incredible and that I’m still here,” she said. “It was a feeling I’ll never forget – the goosebumps I got.”

The next step for Murphy was healing, both mentally and physically. She started sharing her experiences, hoping they could be educational for others.

“It’s so great to know that a hard thing I’ve been through and a hard thing I’ve learned can prevent someone else from learning those hardships,” Murphy said.

When Murphy began her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she wanted to become a pediatric life specialist to provide distraction therapy for children battling cancer. Now a junior, she is double majoring in English and History and pursuing a certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies.

“I couldn’t go to a hospital without being reminded of my past. It wasn’t healthy for the people I wanted to help and it wasn’t healthy for me,” Murphy said.

Instead, she advocates for childhood cancer awareness as president of UW-Madison’s Pinky Swear Foundation, an organization that supports families and children in their fight against cancer. Through fundraising events, hospital visits, and sending meaningful cards and gifts to those affected, Murphy and members of the organization work to make a difficult time a little easier.

“Katie is incredibly driven and intelligent, and has always been able to stay on the path she wanted, even with speed bumps,” Freeck said. “She’s also very selfless.”

Murphy said she’s not the same person she was before her mom got that life-changing phone call.

“[I] really realized how strong I am, how great my support system is,” Murphy said. “It showed me that I have to live each day like it’s your last and not worry about the little things.”

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