By Ed Morrone
Haley Snyder quickly found out two things after being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) at the age of 23: cancer is depressing, and cancer is expensive.
While cancer is obviously known to attack a person’s physical health, it can also be a drain on one’s psyche and bank account. Nick’s House Swarthmore helped alleviate both of those maladies for Haley.
“Financially, my family isn’t in a bad place,” Haley said. “I have great insurance, but cancer is expensive. I’ve just been trying to worry about getting better, so this place has been a huge help for us, financially.
“Cancer is also depressing, and having hard days (emotionally) only adds to that. But Nick’s House is homey. I can walk around in my socks. There’s a clean kitchen and bathrooms that I can use and there’s cleaning products everywhere at our disposal, which in and of itself has been a godsend since I can’t afford to get sick. One morning, I walked down the steps and looked outside and it was snowing. It was so magical for me. This house is so beautiful and the grounds around it are gorgeous. That, to me, is home.”
Actual home for Haley is New Cumberland, Pa., right outside of Harrisburg. However, she was already in Philadelphia when her problems began in the spring of 2018, having decided to take a year to work for AmeriCorps before going to graduate school.
Haley made three trips to an urgent care center and two additional stops at separate emergency rooms, none of which were fruitful in revealing a diagnosis. Finally, after waking up one morning with her eyelids swollen shut, Haley found herself at Wills Eye Hospital. After discovering blood pooling behind Haley’s eyes, doctors there finally drew her blood and quickly determined she had ALL.
“My heart shattered,” she said. “I was admitted to the hospital at Jefferson and the first thing I did was puke. I was totally overwhelmed. You never think cancer is going to happen to you, especially when you’re 23.”
Haley said there were days when her boyfriend, Joel, had to “literally pick me up off the floor, I was in such bad shape.” Not only did chemotherapy make her chronically fatigued, but doctors told Haley that the medicine could compromise her fertility, offering no guarantees she would be able to have children in her future.
“I’m 24 and now I don’t know if I can have kids,” she said. “That’s been one of the hardest things to deal with.”
After a brief remission and subsequent relapse, doctors next recommended a chemo-radiation combination as well as a haploidentical transplant in which Haley’s mother, Nancy, served as her half-match donor. The transplant took place on Nov. 15, and as she was getting prepared to be discharged from the hospital, Haley and Nancy learned that the place where they thought they would be staying had no availability for the first 12 days of December, meaning they had to figure out somewhere else nearby as Haley needed to be within a certain distance from the hospital so that doctors could monitor her progress.
Luckily for Haley, there was availability at Nick’s House, and after spending a few days at the house, she and Nancy agreed that they would like to stay beyond just the first two weeks of December. Among many other things, Haley found a comfort in staying in a home with a couple of other families enduring a similar fight to hers.
“There’s different stories to hear about, and you discover we all have our own battles,” she said. “I see my friends on social media going to the bar or traveling, and I feel like I’m missing out on that. Staying here, you find out other people are missing out on their lives, too. It’s nice to talk to some people who can at least kind of understand what I’m going through and tell them about my experiences.
“It truly is a community of people, and they help me pull myself out of my room, get out of my own head and just talk to other people. I don’t want to sit and wallow.”
Another vital thing Nick’s House helped provide Haley with was perspective. The chemo made her lose her hair, which she said was previously long and blonde and made her feel pretty. When that went away, Haley felt like she had lost part of her identity, but living at Nick’s House allowed her to check her self-proclaimed vanity at the door.
Yes, Haley may have looked a little different physically, but she’s also an entirely different person than the one she was when this whole saga began nearly a year ago.
“There was a time I couldn’t even look at myself in a mirror,” she said. “Then I told myself that there was more to life than this, as well as reminding myself that I was battling for my life. It’s not what the average person has to deal with, so I can’t sit here and judge myself; on the inside, I’m still a great person.
“Through all of this, I learned that a lot of stuff just doesn’t matter. It sucks to have to learn it this way, but it makes you wise beyond your years. This experience has helped me grow into my own skin, and I’m so glad to be alive.”