Rachael Johnson was a Kean University sophomore in February 2020 when she first suspected something was wrong.
She had swollen glands that didn't improve, was having hot flashes, and was so fatigued that she often felt sleepy while driving.
Because of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that started the following month, it wasn't until June that the then 21-year-old was finally able to get a diagnosis: stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.
"I was right on the cusp of being too far gone because I had masses in my neck and my armpit, in my lungs, in my chest, in my abdomen, and even on my spleen," Johnson said. "So, we caught it late but also just in time."
Her doctor suggested she take time off from her classes at Kean or take a lighter academic load while she went through six months – 12 treatments – of chemotherapy.
But the Marlboro resident instead chose to continue her studies full time to complete her bachelor's degree in biology-health professions on schedule in May 2022.
"I knew in my mind it was either do this or face the alternative, which is possibly dying,"' she said.
"As dark as that sounds, I knew that I wanted to choose life, and I wanted to choose learning and growing my mind. I knew that no matter what happened, I could accomplish a degree; I could accomplish knowledge instead of fear. I didn't feel strong, but I knew I had to do it to live."
By her fourth treatment, Johnson was cancer-free and remains in remission today. She credits her family and fiancé with helping to keep her spirits up, and her mind focused on her goals.
It was her mother who shaved her head when she started to lose her hair from treatments.
She also credits her professors and classmates for supporting her through her treatment and recovery.
In her class, Drug Use and Abuse, held remotely in Fall 2020, she would share how she was doing with her classmates.
"We would have this little moment at the beginning, and everyone in my class was just so supportive," she said.
Adjunct Professor Abena G. Dakwahene taught that class and also had Johnson as a student again in Spring 2021.
"Rachael has a beautiful spirit, and I wanted to be there for her; it was that simple," Dakwahene said.
"Rachael was very open with me about when she wasn't feeling well and had to miss class or leave a little early. I would always reassure her that we could touch base at any time for any information that she missed in class, and we had great communication throughout the semesters to ensure that she felt supported during a difficult time."
Through the fatigue, the "chemo brain fog," and the worry, Johnson kept going and walked across the stage at Prudential Center on Thursday, May 19, to receive her bachelor's degree.
"It was great, a relief in a way," she said. "I think I got the most emotional when I was about to walk up on stage. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh!' I truly didn't think the moment would come after the year and a half I had, but it just felt like a big weight off my shoulders."
Johnson always had a long-term career goal to work in life science research, such as cancer research.
However, through her medical ordeal, she has developed an interest in mental health counseling and behavioral neuroscience and may pursue a master's degree in those fields.
But first up is a personal milestone. She will marry her fiancé, Juan Ignacio Candela, this August.