From Relapse to Graduation: What a Difference Four Years Can Make

by Sarah Swaim
July 14, 2014

When 2012 Ambassador Sarah’s leukemia relapsed in 2010, she had to put her life on hold. She left college, underwent a stem cell transplant, and participated in a St. Baldrick’s-funded clinical trial that ultimately saved her life. Now in remission, she graduated college and is looking forward to starting her new job. Help find a cure for all kids with cancer — get involved.

Sarah Swaim on graduation day
I picked up my cap and gown two months before graduation and promptly tossed it in my closet. Even then I remember being so consumed with what was going on with school that I could not even imagine or anticipate graduation.

It wasn’t until the week before, when I dug it out of my closet to iron it, that I realized the finish line I was about to cross. For that week, I got to see my cap and gown every day and reflect on everything that has happened, everything I’ve overcome, and everything that lay ahead.

Childhood cancer interrupted my life not once, but twice.

Reflecting on everything that has happened is a never-ending saga for me. Childhood cancer interrupted my life not once, but twice.

There are days where my mind is set on “reflect.” On these days, I reflect that three years and 10 months ago I was undergoing a stem cell transplant at Duke University Hospital.

I can remember wrapping my body in Saran Wrap to protect my central lines during showers. I recall falling a million times due to weakness because I refused to use a wheelchair or a cane. Only now are there beginning to be moments — not days, but moments — when I don’t think about cancer, transplant, and the way it has affected my life.

Graduation day was emotional. I knew it would be. I spoke with my mom the night before and she asked why I thought it would be such an emotional day. I simply said, “There was a point in time where I didn’t think I would be alive for this.”

Sarah in her gown on graduation day

“There was a point in time where I didn’t think I would be alive for this,” Sarah said.

But there I was the next day on the football field, sitting with my friends and listening to commencement speeches, literally in awe of my life. I kept thinking, “I can’t believe I did it! I can’t believe I’m here!”

I was so emotional as I walked across the stage, hearing “Sarah Elizabeth Swaim, Bachelor of Science, Birth through Kindergarten Teacher Education.” I was overwhelmed with two emotions: complete happiness and, at the same time, a humbling sadness, for as I walked across the stage I carried with me all the friends I have lost, thinking, “This is for you guys.”

I am currently almost two full months past graduating from college and have made the first of many steps into adulthood. I have secured a teaching job for the school year, which, to be honest, is completely terrifying, yet very exhilarating!

I still sometimes feel like I am behind in life. I am 25 and I just graduated college, moved back home with my amazing parents, and probably won’t be completely independent for another year or more.

Feeling behind in life can be overwhelming, but when I feel overwhelmed I naturally go into “reflection mode,” which brings me only one emotion: appreciation for life.

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