This warrior hopes to become a pediatric neurosurgeon

Even before she became a patient at IU Health Simon Cancer Center Abigail “Abbi” Sarabyn knew she wanted to be doctor.

It was finals week at IUPUI and Abigail “Abbi” Sarabyn was like any other college student – stressed out and looking forward to summer break. But something happened that changed her focus.

“I wasn’t feeling well and when I coughed or sneezed there was pain in my chest,” said Sarabyn, 22. She made a solo trip to her primary care physician thinking she’d get some meds to get her through finals.

Beginning in elementary school, Sarabyn played school and club volleyball. She was a fit athlete and rarely had any illness. A 2016 graduate of Pike High School she remembers a twisted ankle and more than one concussion but other than that she was healthy.

Her parents James and Kim Sarabyn describe their youngest child as “stubborn to a fault but very compassionate.” They say as a little girl she was always strong-willed and independent. She also has a brother Matthew, 25.

So when Abbi returned to her primary care physician a second and third time, her parents weren’t surprised by her persistence. The second time she complained of stomach pain and her doctor thought maybe she had an ulcer. But days later she returned with shooting pains up her arm.

“Since it was finals week, I knew I was stressed but the dots weren’t connecting. Something was wrong,” said Sarabyn. She drove herself to urgent care and was referred to IU Health West for blood work and scans. Her mom met her at the hospital and they received the results together. Her blood levels were elevated. Scans showed a softball-size mass in her chest and blood clots in the lower lobes.

“After that they said they would send us directly to IU Health Simon Cancer Center. We transferred her and things snowballed from there,” said Kim Sarabyn. It was April 30 and this 22-year-old college student and healthy athlete was about to face a test outside the classroom – one of the biggest challenges of her life.

Abbi Sarabyn was diagnosed with Diffuse Large Cell B-Cell Lymphoma (DLCBL). The cancer starts in the white blood cells and usually grows in lymph nodes- the pea-sized glands in the neck, groin, armpits and other parts of the immune system. It can grow fast but three out of four people are reportedly disease free after treatment.

At Simon Cancer Center, in the care of oncologist Dr. Jose Azar, Sarabyn learned she had fluid around her heart and tumors on each kidney, her adrenal gland and small intestine. During her weekend hospitalization her small bowel erupted and she was taken into emergency surgery.

“That surgery saved her life,” said her mom. But as the mass in her chest continued to grow and push against her esophagus, the family knew Abbi needed to begin chemotherapy as soon as she healed from surgery.

In May she started a regime that continues every 21 days. It seems to be working.

“The mass is significantly reduced – about 80 to 90 percent and the lymph nodes are down 80 percent,” said Abbi. “Everyone we’ve dealt with has been so nice. I had a list of questions for Dr. Azar and he is so nice. He’s informative and answers all the questions in a way I understand the answers. I think in the end this experience will make me a better doctor.”

Sarabyn has known since eighth grade she wanted to study neuroscience. “I’ve always been interested in dream and sleep cycles and I really want to work in pediatrics as a neurosurgeon,” she said. She recently was recognized for her academic standing with the Hawryluk Family Scholarship – a $5,000 award.

She’s taking a semester off school to finish her treatment but hopes to be on track to graduate in 2021.

“I’ve known since she started playing volleyball that she was a warrior, playing through pain and never giving up,” said her mother. “We have been so overwhelmed by all the support – people praying for her everywhere.” Many friends and family members wear neon green #Abbistrong t-shirts to show their support.

And Abbi has her own symbols to remind her of her strength – three crosses tattooed to her skin. “The one on my hand reminds me to do God’s work; the one on my feet reminds me to go where God leads me; and the one on my neck reminds me to stay focused.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email