Story by Paul R. Ross, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
The word “cancer” is ugly. It takes lives, devastates families and destroys people from the inside. It’s a word no one wants to hear come from a doctor’s mouth. But when the unsightly word is paired with another three-syllable sound, it becomes a label of hope, perseverance and optimism.
Twelve years after a dietician at Naval Medical Center San Diego received a life-altering diagnosis at the age of 15, she continues to bear the hard-earned label that combines the two contrasting words. She is a cancer survivor.
When Carly Hill was 15 she was an avid basketball player. But soon she became sluggish on the court of her summer-league team. She wasn’t recovering at a normal pace. After various medical tests and visits to her physician she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) – a disease that helped shape her devotion to helping others and her unique perspective on life.
“The first thing that came to my mind as I talked to my primary care doctor was, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?'” Carly said. “I was an adolescent and just wanted to be normal. Secondly, I asked, ‘Am I going to die?'”
Receiving the life-altering diagnosis was Hill’s first step in her battle against the debilitating disease. Soon a flurry of medical tests and procedures made the young girl feel far from a normal high school sophomore.
“As a teenager, I was going through these intense chemo-therapy treatments,” said the Yountville, Calif. native. “I couldn’t play basketball anymore and that was really heartbreaking. Your blood cell counts are down and you don’t have a lot of energy. I chose not to go to school because there is risk of infection. You really don’t feel very normal.”
Carly’s brother, who is three years older, remembers his sister’s unwillingness to let the disease get the best of her.
“It was extremely difficult for me to watch her go through the process, and be in so much pain,” said Ryan Hill. “She and my Dad are very similar in the way they handle difficult situations. They generally remain calm and quiet, and don’t express many feelings or emotions. Carly never said the words, ‘why me’ or ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ She was a true warrior, and inspiration to our family.”
Her doctor let her know that her chance of survival was 75-95 percent, but that she would have to undergo chemo-therapy.
“I was put on a randomized study,” Carly said. “My parents were the ones who made that choice. They kind of talked to me about it, but truly I couldn’t really understand. I was randomized to help other researchers to determine what is the best chemo-therapy for at-risk ALL patients. From there I was on the standard dose. They put me on a road map of medications for about two and a half years.”
Shortly after her first round of treatments, the family received good news.
“I ended up being an early fast responder, which is a really good sign to the chemo-therapy, meaning that they couldn’t find a lot of the cells in my body that were cancerous after the first dose,” Carly said.
But the various treatments soon led to other problems.
“After my cancer treatments, I developed a condition from steroids called avascular necrosis,” Carly said. “Somehow the steroids cut off the blood supply to the bone tissues in my joint areas, especially my hip areas. My hips actually broke and about 10 years ago and I had to get a hip replacement.”
On top of having her hips replaced at the age of 18, the former basketball player also dealt with other issues brought on by the chemo-therapy.
“Research shows that children that have undergone chemo-therapy are incredibly depressed and anxious,” Carly said. “That was something I really struggled with after my therapy. I had trouble really getting out of that shy sense and striving for normalcy.”
Through her depression she eventually found her way to her true passion.
“Carly battled an eating disorder shortly after entering remission from cancer, and she wanted to control everything – especially when it came to her weight,” Ryan said. “Through her journey in overcoming a nasty eating disorder, blossomed a love for advocating a healthy lifestyle.”
Carly originally wanted to be a teacher. She moved to San Diego for school but soon found herself switching degree programs.
“When I was about 20, I was getting help from a registered dietician as well as a therapist,” Carly said. “I really noticed how much it helped me. And I learned to change the thoughts about myself and learn to love myself unconditionally. But it took time working with the therapist and dietician. It struck a light bulb in my head of wanting to become a dietician. It was ultimately my neighbor sitting me down and saying, ‘You know what, you should get into nutrition, why don’t you teach nutrition.'”
She was already at San Diego State and switched her major. She received a degree in nutrition and performed her dietetic internship with the University of Delaware distance program.
Being a childhood cancer survivor, Carly wanted to give back to that population.
“I’m getting ready to become a board certified pediatric specialist and have all the resources at my fingertips within our nutritional clinic here,” Carly said. “I wanted to be able to learn more in pediatrics because there’s so much to know. Little guys are so different than actual adults to even the elderly. We’re working with a population from zero to 20 years old. Every age group needs different nutrients.”
As a dietician, Carly believes she plays a vital role in the health of her patients.
“We are really investigators of the patient,” Hill said. “We look at everything from their lab tests to their socio-economics of where they can get food. All these different pieces are the big picture in trying to help them with what we can do right now if they’re inpatient. Is the diet appropriate for their needs? All of this can lead to death if nutrition isn’t adequate.”
Along with working in pediatrics, Carly also serves an older population through a weight loss class and a Cancer 101 class offered at the medical center.
“I can really relate to the population even though it is adults,” Carly said. “It’s really refreshing (for the patients) to have someone sit down with you and say that there is hope, I’ve been in your situation. Maybe you’ve received different therapies but I want to let you know my experiences. Not everyone’s experiences are the same but here’s the latest research, the latest tools and tips to get through the hard times with your nutrition.”
Carly’s personality and passion are the reason she is able to provide her unique brand of care to her patients.
“Carly loves learning,” said Charis Ross, Naval Medical Center San Diego pediatric dietician. “She loves what she does. She is bubbly and is always happy.”
Her dedication to her patients led to her recently being recognized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for a personal testimony she submitted, revealing the highlight of her five months spent at NMCSD – helping save the life of a young pediatric patient who had leukemia by using medical nutrition therapy and food as medicine.
“This was incredibly meaningful to me because I could relate to my patient,” Carly said. “As an adolescent, I conquered the same type of cancer, becoming a now 12-year survivor. My relatability and nutritional expertise not only gave my patient a sense of hope and support, but my nutritional tools and coaching helped the patient overcome long-term nutritional complications after intensive treatments.”
Her role as a dietician is to give her patients the ability to manage their own nutrition.
“I want people to see that they can change their lifestyle,” Carly said. “They need the correct tools and support in order to do it, but ultimately they have to be the ones who can make those changes. I can’t do it for them, I can only be their cheerleader.”
Along with her patients, Carly’s other passion in life is her family’s winery, which is located in the Napa Valley in California. Her inspirational story can even be found on the label of one of the winery’s chardonnays.
“My dad, my mom, my brother and I, are all proprietors of my families wine,” Carly said. “Because I ended up surviving and continue to be a survivor, my brother actually named one of our Chardonnays after me. It’s my survivorship wine. It’s called, ‘Carly’s Cuvee Chardonnay,’ because I’d overcome all these different obstacles. Even when I’m in the wine tasting room, a parent will come up to me and say that ‘Carly’s Cuvee’ is incredible because my daughter is a cancer survivor too.”
Carly’s brother believes that overcoming cancer helped shape his sister into who she is today.
“Before Carly was diagnosed with cancer, she was a bit more reserved, risk adverse, and less outgoing than she is today,” Ryan said. “I firmly believe that Carly gained more confidence and motivation by winning the battle against cancer.”
The dietician believes she won the battle against the disease for a reason.
“The reason I wanted to become a dietician is to help people and give back,” Carly said. “I was put here, and kept here, for a reason. I feel like that is why – to help.”
At 12 years from being diagnosed with leukemia, no cancer can be found in Carly’s body. She has never had a relapse. She is a survivor.