In the fall of 2018, Marlee Pincus ’24 started college with her whole life figured out. She had just graduated salutatorian from Yorktown High School and knew she wanted to study biology and Spanish and work in health care helping underserved communities. She was making friends, joining clubs and getting her life started at Cornell.
But things didn’t go according to plan. At just 17, Pincus was diagnosed with cancer. She was diagnosed with leukemia and took a two year leave of absence from college.
“My first question was, ‘Am I going to die?’ My second was, ‘When can I go back to school?,’” Pincus said.
Prior to the diagnosis, Pincus’s first year started off like any other. She was focused on academics, making friends and adjusting to life at Cornell. She was very involved with Cornell Hillel and made several friends through the organization. As a resident of Mary Donlon Hall she did not find it concerning when everyone — including herself — came down with the “Donlon flu”.
“Everyone just started getting sick, and so did I, but I didn’t care. I felt like absolute garbage, but I hadn’t been sleeping,” Pincus said. At the time, Pincus believed that the new environment of dining hall food, staying up late doing work and hanging out with friends was the reason for her sickness.
However, while others recovered, Pincus only got worse.
Pincus noticed something was wrong when she started getting extremely fatigued from walking across campus and began experiencing debilitating night sweats.
“I remember someone on crutches passed me once. I had been a cross-country runner, so I thought something might be wrong,” Pincus said. “But I didn’t really have time to deal with it, so I just kept going.”
It was only when Pincus went home for October break that she went to an urgent care to get blood drawn. She was then transferred to an emergency room where she was diagnosed with leukemia.
Though her chance of survival from her type of leukemia was high, Pincus needed two and a half years of chemotherapy while taking a medical leave of absence from Cornell.
She then began treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where she was an in-patient for a month. She spent her 18th birthday in the hospital on Oct. 18, 2018. This date was special to her as the number 18 in the Jewish tradition represents “chai” or life and prosperity.
Following that tradition, on her birthday Pincus asked friends and family to make donations to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, an organization that funds blood cancer research and provides patient care and access to treatment. Although her goal was to raise $1,800 in 18 days, she ended up raising over $18,000.
Pincus also started a blog where she would post updates on her treatment and words of inspiration that kept her going through chemotherapy. She updated her blog until the end of her treatment.
The first month of chemotherapy took a toll on her as she rapidly lost weight and suffered from a complete lack of energy.
“I was so out of it. So frail, so traumatized. It was all a complete blur. I don’t remember any of it,” Pincus said.
After a challenging first month in the hospital, Pincus was able to return home and go in for monthly treatments. But since she was completely immunocompromised, she had to be extremely careful as any infection would send her to the intensive care unit, which she says occurred a few times.
Just as Pincus started oral chemotherapy and was given more freedom to leave the house and take classes at her local community college, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But the pandemic wasn’t all bad for Pincus. As an immunocompromised individual, she had been wearing masks long before they were recommended for the general public.
“Now everyone was living the life that I had already been living for a year and a half, and at least now I didn’t have to worry about people not wearing masks,” Pincus said.
Even though it was still in the midst of the pandemic, Pincus felt ready to return back to college life. By the fall of 2020, Pincus’s medical team gave her permission to return to Cornell where she would start again as a freshman.
“Coming back to college during a pandemic was scary, but I was willing to take the risk and be careful because it was something that meant a lot to me,” Pincus said.
Once back in Ithaca, she carried out her monthly chemotherapy appointments at the Cayuga Medical Center. At that point, her immune system was strong enough for her to be welcomed back at Cornell. While she was still physically weak, having the majority of her classes on Zoom made her life easier as she didn’t have to walk around campus.
However, readjusting to her lifestyle was harder than she expected. The friends she had met before her diagnosis had already established their friend groups and lives, so she had to go through the process of finding friends once again. This was made more difficult as everyone in her classes and in her dorm was two years younger than her.
“It was extremely difficult because, after everything I had been through, I was more emotionally mature than people my own age, let alone people in their freshman year,” Pincus said, “I would hear people complaining about stupid things, like work or partying, and I just couldn’t relate.”
Pincus was able to make new friends at Cornell by rekindling her involvement in the Jewish community, participating in events regularly and meeting new friends through the community. She now works for Cornell Hillel as a Birthright intern, helping Jewish Cornellians travel to Israel.
After almost two and a half years of monthly hospital visits, Pincus ended chemotherapy treatment on Jan. 31, 2021. As a result of her treatment, Pincus’s physical appearance changed dramatically. Once she stopped chemotherapy, she struggled to recognize the Marlee she was from freshman year.
“It took a long time to reconcile that I’m not ever going to be who I was before cancer, but that’s okay. You develop a sense of a new normal in your life,” Pincus said. “What I gained from this experience I would never want to give up. I have such a higher appreciation and joy for every day that I live and for every moment that I have.”
Though Pincus said she will never describe herself as “cancer-free,” she is starting to live her life to the fullest.
“I had been so focused on school. I remember sitting in the hospital and thinking, I might die, and I didn’t live at all because I was so focused on getting good grades,” Pincus said. “That’s when I promised myself that if I ever did make it through this, that I would never do that again.”
Pincus has joined a social sorority and now never turns down an opportunity to connect with friends.
“It’s extremely important to prioritize things outside of academics. In twenty years from now, you won’t remember that chem test you had, but you will remember going out with your friends. Appreciate that, and savor every moment,” Pincus said.
Through it all, she maintains her passion for science and the Spanish language. During treatment, Pincus met a Cornell alum doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering who majored in bioengineering and their conversations inspired her to switch majors. She is still sustaining a minor in Spanish.
This semester, Pincus is conducting research at the Fischbach Lab where she analyzes the linkage between breast cancer and obesity. Her participation in this research comes full circle from her personal journey with cancer.
“Life is really short: these are four years you won’t get back. You can have a global pandemic hit and it’s all gone. You can get cancer and it’s all gone,” Pincus said. “Every moment you have, enjoy it.”