Ava Collage
Hodgkin Lymphoma

Ava O’Toole

Hodgkin Lymphoma
22 years old

Toronto ON

To me, the ability to feel fear comes with the gift of living to wonder about the future - it gave me hope, as I learned to live again. Since then, I have regained my strength, speed, ability to think and write, and my zest for life.

Team Ava: The Serenity of Choice


My name is Ava O’Toole. I am 22 years old. I am an Economics student at Wilfrid Laurier University. I battled and survived Stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2019.

I faced cancer symptoms for two years leading up to my diagnosis: weight loss (on and off), chest pain, stomach pain, slightly abnormal white blood cell counts (sometimes), shortness of breath, night sweats, swollen glands under my jaw, my neck, my collar bones, and pubic area, and inability to digest any type of carbohydrate, including fruits. However, my symptoms were well masked by Scoliosis, a newly weak immune system, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I lived through a lot of debilitating pain.

I still get chills when I think about January 24th, 2019- it was when the excruciating pain I endured for several months finally overtook me and I fell apart. Radiating down my shoulder blades, across my abdomen, and into my legs and fingertips- I was burning alive from the inside out. I was wheeled by ambulance to the ER, and after several medical tests and amidst the steady dose of powerful opioids, injected into my muscles- they barely helped- my pain was explained to me in graphic detail. I learned about a mass found in my chest. It was biopsied, and within the next month, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, my life’s “big picture” became the size of my thumbnail, and my ambitions and life goals seemed impossible. When my future was uncertain, I began to look to all of the lessons and life values I learned in the past, and up until my diagnosis. Growing up, I watched many people I loved fight deadly diseases with grace. When I was diagnosed, I remembered those people, who I was before I was sick, and who I wanted to be as I stepped into an uncertain future. It helped me a lot.

In March 2019, I began ABVD treatments, and for the following six months, I struggled with the emotional component and wrenching, debilitating, physical side effects of chemotherapy. I gained weight, lost my muscle and strength, and lost my hair. I faced night terrors, hallucinations, I forgot how to play the piano, I couldn’t find the words to do the thing I loved- to write, and above all, I slowly lost my ability to think and process information. Fortunately, I was surrounded by love and support.

Two friends who battled cancer opened up to me about their experiences as I faced mine, and ultimately helped me through mine. They knew much more about what I would face, than I fathomed when I was diagnosed. One of them, Harrison, is 22 and has lived with a brain tumor for eight years. We started chemotherapy within a day of each other, and he successfully underwent brain surgery while I underwent my final treatment. My other, 19-year-old friend, Mitch, was in remission after battling against a difficult-to cure form of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (Philadelphia-like strain). Two years into his remission, and two months into mine, his cancer relapsed, and was more aggressive than the first time. In March 2020, he underwent another bone-marrow transplant. During my treatments, I was afraid, and I didn’t want anyone to see my fear or my new negativity, which I overshadowed with constant positivity. They laughed with me when I made obscene jokes, and even joined in, and they saw through the mask that cancer forces you to wear. They were who I felt like I could always be open with, unfiltered, even when I couldn’t think. I learned from them that the biggest gift you can give to the people who care about you is to let them help you, even when you can do it by yourself - they are part of hope.

In September 2019, I received the best news that any cancer patient could receive: my cancer was in remission. I was at a standstill.

I can’t say there is just one, single challenge brought by cancer; there are several challenges, and each depends on your circumstances. When you think you might die, you fight to survive. When you learn that you might live, you fight to remember that you’re one of the lucky ones. The first challenge is to survive, and the second challenge is to remember how to live after you survive. I stared a hole through my reflection for months, wondering who I was looking at, as I vomited all over myself, and struggled to read a book. Then, life was handed to me on a silver platter, and I had no idea how to take it. I was cancer free, facing PTSD, and so far away from the person I had known. I had to remember how to be happy. Fighting to survive and remembering how to live were both challenging, in opposite ways. One meant accepting the worst, and the other meant remembering how to fear the worst. There was no single challenge.

Adventuring through my first several months in remission has come with lots of emotions and processing. During my chemotherapy treatments, I hoped for the best, but was aware of the worst, so I chose to accept the worst before the choice could be taken away from me; it meant grieving my death when I was still alive and letting go of the fear that once came with it. For several months, I was indifferent. I still remember the first time I felt fear again, a few months after learning that I was in remission, and nearly one year since I was diagnosed with cancer. It made me smile. To me, the ability to feel fear comes with the gift of living to wonder about the future - it gave me hope, as I learned to live again. Since then, I have regained my strength, speed, ability to think and write, and my zest for life.

I am grateful to be an Honoured Hero with LLSC for Light the Night 2020. I am thankful to my doctors who gave me hope, to Light the Night for giving me a place where my voice could matter, to my friends, who stood by me unquestionably through the worst of times, and to my parents, for encouraging me and cheering me on every day and always – they are my light. Every person who takes part in Light the Night is one face to represent the millions of faces who have faced blood cancer, who are facing blood cancer, and who will be forced to face it. There are many of us. Some of those people are friends of friends, or strangers who we pass by on our way to work, and some of them are little lights in our lives, like my friend Mitch who is recovering from his second battle with Philadelphia-like Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. We are all pieces of a bigger puzzle, and when we stand together, we Light the Night.

Do you have a story to tell?

As a supporter, in memory, or as a survivor… share with others why you are helping end blood cancers by participating in a Light the Night Walk