LEXINGTON, Ky. (9/7/2013)—At Morehead State University when you hear Liza Angelicchio’s name a few words come to mind: Beautiful, smart, funny, Chi Omega, and strong. These are just a few of the things that define 23-year-old Liza.
Right before Christmas Break last school year Liza started to complain about her back and chest hurting. She noticed that despite being in shape she couldn’t walk short distances without getting short of breath. That is when she realized something was wrong.
As soon as Liza could she decided to get checked out. The doctors told her that they would let her know the results of her blood and urine tests in the morning. Liza’s parents thought she had pneumonia, the doctor said it could possibly be blood clots in her lungs, but nobody was prepared for what she would find out later that night.
“My whole family was sitting in our living room watching Pitch Perfect when the doctor called at 8:30 that night,” said Liza. “He told me he thought that I had Leukemia, and being as shocked as I was, I handed my mom the phone.”
Liza was admitted into the hospital that same night at 10 p.m. and diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. She started chemo the next morning.
“It was a crazy 24 hours,” she said.
A couple of days later Liza was told that she had Philadelphia Chromosome, which means that she was going to need a stem cell transplant.
“We were warned that it could take forever to find a match,” she said. “My sister ended up being only a 50 percent match.”
Luck was on her side because they found three perfect matches for Liza. On February 27 she received the transplant and was released to go home after three weeks.
A few days went by and she started noticing a rash forming on her back. The new cells that Liza received were not responding well with her older cells, which caused her to become really sick. The rash was a sign of graft-versus-host-disease, or GVHD.
“It was the most painful and miserable thing I have ever been through in my life,” Liza said. “It felt like I had third degree burns all over my body and my skin was peeling off. It was disgusting.”
GVHD isn’t rare, and the doctors told Liza that there was a chance that it would affect her. A little bit is a good thing because it shows that the cells are working, a lot of the rash is deadly.
“I was on the too much of the rash end,” said Liza.
It not only attacked her skin, but it got into her GI tract and also her liver, causing her to be really sick. She had no appetite because of the chemo, radiation and GVHD, which caused her to drop to 74 pounds.
“I was in the hospital for 39 days that time. I didn’t know this until recently, but the doctors had only given me a 10 percent chance to live, which was crazy because I had no idea how sick I was,” said Liza. “From the beginning I told them I didn’t really want to know what was going on so they didn’t tell me.”
Now at 88 pounds, Liza has been out of the hospital for three months and has checkups every two weeks.
One hundred days post transplant they did a bone marrow biopsy on Liza and found out that there are no cancer cells in her body. After a long fight, Liza is now in remission.
“They don’t consider you cured from your disease until after you are in remission for five years,” said Liza. “But it has been one crazy learning experience.”
Almost a year after her diagnosis Liza is feeling blessed, strong and thankful for everyone who has supported her and kept her positive throughout the whole process.
“I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” she said. “I’m not sure why this happened to me, but in a way I’m kind of glad. It brought a lot of people together and has taught me a lot about myself and how strong of a person I really am.”
Supporters rallied behind Liza, making “LizaStrong” bracelets and shirts.
“Everyone in general has been super supportive,” said Liza. “People I don’t know have even been reaching out to me. It’s been crazy and overwhelming but I’m so thankful for everything.”
This past year people have been inspired by the positivity that Liza has carried with her since day one of her diagnosis. Some don’t understand how she has carried herself with such optimism, but Liza said it’s because everyone around her made her feel that way.
“Since I was little my mom always said everything happens for a reason and I 100 percent believe that now. The amount of support I received from people I didn’t even know was so uplifting. It’s hard not to be positive when so many people are pulling for you. My doctors and nursing staff were great and my parents outlook on the situation was just amazing,” she said.
I asked Liza what the first thing she wanted to do was when she was at full health again, and she didn’t skip a beat when answering.
“I can’t wait to get in my car and drive wherever I’d like to go,” she said laughing. “My mom won’t let me drive right now because my reflexes aren’t quick enough. I just want to drive. That’s the first thing I want to do.”
After weeks of eating just chicken broth, Liza said it was the best day ever when they told her she could eat food again.
“I went straight for fast food,” she said. “You don’t realize you miss something until it’s taken away from you. I would never crave something so bad in my life until I couldn’t have it. Especially when I was on the all-liquid diet. It was terrible, I had so many cans of chicken noodle soup and ramen it was disgusting.”
Liza said that she wouldn’t be here today without the support of everyone around her, and her outlook on the situation.
“A huge part on getting through cancer is how you look at it,” she said. “I could’ve questioned why this was happening to me and I could’ve felt sorry for myself but I decided not to. I think if I would’ve been negative the outcome wouldn’t have been the same, I don’t think I’d be as well as I am right now.”
At Saturday’s St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, Liza will be making her big debut as a baseball star and throwing the opening pitch of the game.
Laughing Liza said, “I’m so excited but nervous at the same time. I’m not a softball or baseball player and I’m not very strong anymore so making it to the catcher will be a challenge… but I’m going to be positive and practice with my neighbor beforehand.”
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