My husband and I got married in 2015, and we moved to Greenville, S.C., for me to pursue my Ph.D. in exercise science from the No. 1 program in the country. I had felt sick for quite a while, and I thought it might be stress from moving across the country and starting a rigorous academic program. I had visited the doctor multiple times over a span of five months and I eventually got a mass on the side of my neck. After that, I was sent to get it biopsied. That's when I was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma. I was just finishing the first year of my Ph.D. program, my first year of marriage, and was about to turn 25.
I had been so lucky with my health and my life before that – I was very healthy and active. And I was studying physical activity and health, so being diagnosed with cancer was a big shock for my husband and me and my family.
I was told that if you were to get cancer, this was a better type to get. I was expecting a six-month treatment, getting chemotherapy every other week. I didn't want to stop school, and my husband was also in school at the time, and I thought we could handle it. Trying to juggle both school, work and my treatments, I was really struggling and it was hard for me to be away from home [in Spokane]. My whole world had flipped. During my treatments I pretty much had every side effect you could get, so I wasn't feeling great. I ended up moving back home to finish my chemotherapy treatments because I had such a great support system there, and I really wanted my husband to be able to finish his semester in school back in South Carolina.
After what was supposed to be my last treatment, I got my scan back and it didn't look good. After having such a great response to the first two cycles of my chemotherapy, this was unexpected and a big surprise to everyone, including my oncologist. The initial treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma typically works, but it didn't for me. My oncologist knew of a clinical trial going on at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, so during the winter of 2017 I flew back and forth between Spokane and Seattle for treatments. The plan was to do this, have the treatments be effective enough for me to have a clean scan, and then undergo a stem cell transplant to hopefully keep the cancer at bay.
I was in the hospital 18 days for the stem cell transplant. That was, by far, the most difficult time for me mentally and physically. As treatment went along and as complications came up, it was the first time in my life of realizing that I can't plan everything and that not everything is going to go according to how I think it is. It was the first time I could apply my faith to my life as far as trying to look to God and not myself or my doctors. Thankfully, since my stem cell transplant I have been cancer free.
Photo on the right: Matt Silvers (health sciences), left, leads a cycling fundraiser for Emily Shull, right, in Whitworth’s Human Performance Lab, where Shull had conducted undergraduate research. Blondel Assonken, center, serves as emcee. Participants raised nearly $10,000 at the February 2017 event to help cover Shull’s cancer treatments.
I received incredible support from my loved ones, especially my Whitworth family. My former basketball coach and close friend, Helen Higgs [kinesiology & athletics], started a fund to help with medical costs, and she was by my side through many treatments and my recovery. Matt Silvers [health sciences] put on a fundraiser in the Human Performance Lab that was based on a research study I had conducted for one of his undergraduate classes, and so many Whitworth friends, former professors and family showed up and participated. Randy Clark [former trustee], who was a big part of women's softball, helped pay for flights for my husband and me to travel across the country. Former presidents sent messages and prayers. Basketball and golf teammates donated money and set up fundraisers, and classmates constantly sent me gifts and uplifting messages. The list goes on.
In the health sciences program at Whitworth, I loved our discussions about logic, reasoning and faith. [My cancer treatment] was a time when I tried to put away more of the logic and really rely on my faith and what I thought God was trying to do. I always had a feeling that this experience would give me a very different perspective than I would have ever had, especially going through it at such a young age. I knew that if I got to the end of treatment, which I did, it would make the biggest impact on my life. I held onto that, and I know I will continue to learn from the experience.
My time at Whitworth led me to where I am today professionally and personally. I built relationships with coaches and teammates who have become lifelong friends. My health science professors introduced me to the world of research, giving me the desire to continue my education. I could not have been better prepared to go to graduate school. My professors cultivated great relationships that flourished our educational experiences and that left me wanting to build similar relationships with those I may help and educate in the future.
As a clinical research coordinator for Shriners Hospitals for Children, I assist physicians with research on a wide variety of topics and conditions relating to pediatric orthopedics. I do everything research-related from meeting with the physicians to write research proposals, talking with the children's families, collecting data and writing for publications.
Helen Higgs (kinesiology & athletics), left, Emily Shull's former basketball coach, attends a “haircut party” in June 2016. Shull had her hair cut before starting chemotherapy and donated her hair to Wigs for Kids.
Pre-COVID, my husband and I volunteered at the cancer clinic I had gotten care at in South Carolina. I would bring patients water and blankets and talk to them if they needed someone to talk to. It was fulfilling and almost therapeutic for me. But after that I didn't have anything that filled that gap. Working in a hospital now, I get to see how the physicians and therapists are helping the kids. Being a part of the research efforts, and seeing the outcomes and changes that are being made to better the lives of these kids, have helped fill the gap that I didn't know I needed filled.
Working in a hospital, it's amazing to see how the kids are so resilient, going through amputations and other conditions, and seeing their families and everyone at Shriners coming together to help them. If I hadn't gone through what I went through, I wouldn't be able to cherish that as much.
I have learned that you can't plan everything. You have to be okay with leaving your plans with God and trusting your faith, and allowing people to help you when you need help. My husband and I struggled with that when I was first diagnosed – all these people donated and put on fundraisers for me. I almost felt undeserving because everyone went above and beyond. I had to learn to give myself some grace and let that love come in.
A favorite verse of mine is Philippians 4:12-13: "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength."
I didn't truly understand this verse before I battled cancer. This verse is particularly applicable to my life post-cancer as I try to create a "new normal" for myself. I have been healthy and I have been very sick. I have been on vacations in beautiful places and I have been confined to a hospital room, hooked up to machines for weeks. Although I am still thriving to "learn the secret of being content in any situation," I am much more adaptable and able now than I ever was before. This verse is a reminder of getting through difficult times by leaning on God's strength.