Alexis Strong

Lakeview senior battling Hodgkin lymphoma after recent diagnosis

Tribune Chronicle / Burton Cole From left, Maddison Hughes, Alexis Rygalski and Elisa Gomez, all Lakeview High School seniors, model “Alexis Strong” bracelets being sold to support Rygalski, a scholar and basketball player who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

It’s crazy how quickly life can change. Or how swiftly purple bracelets fill school hallways.

“The day after Christmas, I had this chest pain and a red lump on my neck,” Lakeview High School senior Alexis Rygalski said.

At basketball practice, she found it hard to breathe. Her left arm went numb and she had shooting pains through the left side of her back. She had to do something she hates — sit out.

After practice, Rygalski went in for X-rays. “They called me back a couple hours later. They found a mass,” she said.

In quick succession, an MRI was followed by a biopsy, which confirmed the diagnosis — stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma. There were three tumors; the one on the chest had grown to 2 inches, she said.

“They were pretty sure from the beginning it was cancer,” Rygalski said. “Hodgkin’s lymphoma is very curable, which is a good thing.”

Hodgkin lymphoma is a rare cancer of the part of the immune system called the lymphatic system. If not caught, it can spread first to nearby lymph nodes, then to lungs, liver or bone marrow. Doctors figure her lymphoma had been developing for about a year, Rygalski said.

“I ran cross country in the fall. I was really doing so bad this season. There was nothing there,” she said. “It was, ‘Why are you so slow?’ Now (I find out) there’s a tumor on my lungs. Now it makes sense.”

Meanwhile, senior Elisa Gomez kept track of her friend.

“We went up to visit her in the hospital,” Gomez said. “Once I found out for sure it was cancer, I wanted to do something right away.”

She found a site online where she could order personalized rubber bracelets. Violet is the color that symbolizes awareness for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Alexis Strong” is engraved on one side of the purple bracelets. On the other side are the words, “No one fights alone.”

So far, the bracelets have raised more than $1,500. Gomez sells the bands for $4 each to offset medical bills and travel expenses for the Rygalski family. And to bolster her friend’s spirits.

“When Lexie sees all the purple everywhere and sees how much people support her, it’s encouraging to her,” Gomez said.

Gomez also established a GoFundMe page under the name 2gether For L3xie. The 2 and the 3 were worked into the heading for a reason: “Her basketball number is 23,” Gomez said. So far, more than $3,200 has come in.

“You don’t need to put the GoFundMe part in the paper,” Rygalski said. She said she’s rather embarrassed by the attention and the idea that money is being raised on her behalf.

But the love keeps coming. Rival Poland High School raised about $3,500 with raffles at the Jan. 26 Lakeview-Poland boys basketball game. Both teams have the same mascot. T-shirts were sold that proclaimed “Bulldogs Unite.”

Quaker Steak and Lube, where Rygalski works, raised another $1,300.

Gomez has more bracelets to sell Friday when the Lakeview Bulldogs boys basketball team takes on Struthers in Cortland.

Senior Maddison Hughes, editor of Lakeview’s school newspaper, said there’s more.

“I just kind of heard what Elisa was doing,” Hughes said. ” I always had a soft spot for people with cancer. It started off with buying a bracelet and a T-shirt. I wanted to do more. She is a senior at Lakeview High School and is struggling to pay for expenses, considering she has college quickly approaching. “

So with Elisa, Hughes is planning a pancake breakfast for the school’s juniors and seniors to support Rygalski. Other events are coming.

“Everybody jumped in to help me,” Rygalski said. “It blows my mind. I’ve never been good at saying thank you. All this love makes my heart feel warm. It makes me smile. I go to bed at night and it’s just like, ‘Wow.'”

She said she’s trying not to think about money.

“My parents said the bills are going to be around $10,000,” Rygalski said.

On top of the medical bills are trips to Cleveland about every other day for bloodwork and scans, chemotherapy sessions every other week, plus all those other pesky incidentals that crop up. There have been two surgeries so far — the biopsy and installation of a port for chemotherapy — and at least one more will be coming to remove the port.

She will undergo the third of eight chemotherapy sessions Friday. Rygalski hasn’t lost her hair yet from chemotherapy treatments, but she knows that’s coming.

“I’ve decided not to shave my head. We’ll see how bad it gets,” she said.

So far, the hardest part is “missing basketball for my surgeries and chemo,” she said. “I play club basketball in the spring and summer. My goal is to be fine by then.”

And then it will be off to college to continue her interrupted education.

She believes it all will happen because with the help of her friends, who won’t let her fight alone, she’s Alexis Strong.


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