A miraculous journey: USF student survives stage four cancer

In a way that was described by doctors as ‘miraculous,’ Rosa Fragello (above) beat stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after going undiagnosed for over a year. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/ROSA FRAGELLO

Words and phrases most people would use to describe cancer, whether they have had it or know someone who has, are chaotic, frightening, unpredictable and life-changing. College is a time when students are preparing for their futures and making concrete plans, but when a 20-year-old was diagnosed with the most advanced stage of a cancer, all her plans were put on hold and her life was drastically altered.

Rosa Fragello, a senior at USF majoring in cell and molecular biology with the hopes to one day become an oncologist, was diagnosed Dec. 2, 2019 with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer was detected throughout her entire body. A few days later, she started chemotherapy and began her journey of healing not just her body, but also mind and spirit.

For over a year her cancer went undetected, and only after the disease had spread throughout her entire body did Fragello learn she had an illness that she may never recover from. Through what Fragello said she feels was a true miracle, she has survived cancer and is living life to the fullest.

Fragello said her life was normal prior to December 2019, and she had never experienced a terminal illness or disability. Cancer was hardly ever prevalent in her life until she began volunteering at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute.

“I started volunteering at the breast cancer clinic and I was the person who waited with the women for their scan results, so I would be the one to kind of calm down their emotions, make them happy, talk to them and make them less scared,” Fragello said. “At the same time they were preparing me for this whole thing.”

She said her symptoms started to show in November 2018, but she had no idea she had cancer.

“I had symptoms for about a year that I didn’t know were cancer symptoms,” Fragello said. “I was so itchy all over my body, almost like my nerves were itching. My friends started thinking it was a psychological disorder.”

After a few months, Fragello said one of her tumors grew near her hip causing her hip bone to hurt so badly that she could not walk anymore.

Right at the end of the 2019 fall semester, Fragello said she began to feel sick, but neither she nor the doctors were aware of the cause of her ailments yet. She was so sick that her mother, Roxane Wergin, came from Gainesville to stay with her in Tampa.

“It was 10 o’clock at night and my doctor called and said that I needed to go to the emergency room right now,” Fragello said. “We drove to the University of Florida’s hospital that night and I got a lot of different tests done and a blood transfusion. The doctors had no idea what was wrong, so it was this huge mystery for three weeks, and I was getting sicker and sicker.”

Not sure if she would survive, Fragello said she was so scared of the uncertainties and was sleeping with her mother each night hoping she would wake up the next morning.

Before finding out her diagnosis, Fragello came back to USF for her research lab where she just happened to be studying lymphoma.

“I had an exam, so I drove down the day before my PET scan and in the back of my head I knew I had lymphoma and I could barely even think, but I finished my final,” Fragello said.

A positron emission tomography (PET) scan, on Dec. 2, 2019, came back with news that changed Fragello’s life. However, Fragello said she doesn’t even remember what the meeting with the doctor was like because she experienced a blackout feeling.

“I couldn’t think because I was so sick,” Fragello said. “I don’t remember most of it, but my dad told me when the doctor told me the PET scan looked very bad was that all I did was give her a thumbs up, and I don’t even remember that or what I said back to her. All I could think about in my head was ‘oh my gosh, I have a lab report to submit in an hour.’”

Describing that moment as emotionless, Fragello said she did not even know what was going on and did not have feelings.

“Nothing seemed real,” Fragello said. “It was like I was outside of my body looking down at this girl who wasn’t me.”

The day after the PET scan came back, Fragello said she had a 7 a.m. biopsy on one of the tumors in her neck.

The next day after the biopsy they went back to the doctor to receive her diagnosis.

“The doctor told me it was stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and it was stage four because it literally was throughout my entire body,” Fragello said. “It was in my spine, my spleen, my blood, my lungs, my hip bone, my pelvis and my chest bones. My life changed in an instant.”

Upon her cancer diagnosis, Wergin said the news was crushing.

“Our family was devastated,” Wergin said. “It was like someone took the oxygen out of our world and, collectively, we felt breathless and broken.”

Caregiving was primarily done by Wergin, who was there for the ups and downs of Fragello’s illness.

“I spent a lot of time just lying next to her, rubbing her legs and arms when the neuropathy was relentless, applying lotion to her skin because the chemo drugs sucked all the moisture from her body, holding her and praying with her and for her and trusting God during some of the darkest paths we walked,” Wergin said. 

“However, there was laughing, singing and cooking, too. She loves to cook and try out new vegan recipes, so on her good days, she would exercise and cook delicious food.”

With little time to process everything, she had to get a port, a tube that attaches to a vein placed into her chest, on Dec. 4 so she could begin chemotherapy right away.

“I was in surgery, and they had to get this big, disgusting thing in my chest. I hated that. The day after getting my port in I had to start chemo,” Fragello said.

Fragello was treated and got her infusions at the University of Florida Health Shands Cancer Hospital. She said her doctor, James Lynch, kept things positive and uplifting, and never once made her feel like a cancer patient.

“Meeting my doctor was very exciting for me because I want to be an oncologist and also he was going to change my life,” Fragello said.

Lynch did not mention cancer for the first hour of their meeting, according to Fragello.

“He sat down with me and just talked to me like I was his friend,” she said. “He asked me my favorite foods, things to do and movies. He was an amazing doctor and the doctor I aspire to be one day because he never once made it a doubt in my head that I wasn’t going to survive or be okay.”

The first time she cried after being told of her illness was at her first chemotherapy treatment, she said.

“I had gotten my port the day before, so it was still sensitive and she pulled out this big needle that they had to put in my port and that was when I just lost it,” she said. “My mind took over my body, and I got so scared. I was crying and shaking and my mom had to hold me down and the nurse did too, and that was the only way for them to get the needle through.”

Having to go through 12 rounds of chemotherapy over a course of six months was her road to beating cancer, according to Fragello.  

Feeling blessed, Fragello said she did not experience much sickness from chemotherapy until her final rounds.

“It did progressively get worse,” she said. “After the first chemo, I could walk again. My bone did not hurt anymore, but I still could not do much. Towards the end, maybe the ninth to the last chemo is when I was getting sick. I am blessed and thankful because I did not get sick until the end.”

Two lessons she said she learned from her chemotherapy sessions was that everything is mind over matter and you make your own reality, and those two takeaways are points she wants to preach to her patients in the future.

“I had this big word, ‘cancer,’ this daunting word that took over me, but I still knew that I was in control of it and I can do what I can do,” she said. “Every day I woke up and knew I had a purpose. I would force myself to walk and I would force myself to literally eat insanely healthy,”

Fruits and vegetables were the only thing Fragello ate during her battle with cancer, and she said she is completely plant-based now.

Aside from going through the normal stressors of having to fight cancer, Fragello was having to do all her treatments during a global pandemic, which she said not only affected her own life but also her family’s lives as well.

“I had to be so careful because of my immune system, and it took over the people in my home because they couldn’t do anything either because I can’t get sick,” Fragello said.

At one point, she was admitted to the hospital and upon arriving she noticed “it was like a ghost town” because of COVID-19. She said she was alone, scared and had to be tested for COVID-19.

“I think one of the craziest things is that this happened during a pandemic,” she said. “I remember my parents couldn’t be with me and I was in the ER and no one knew what was wrong with me. I had a fever over 100.4, which can be fatal for cancer patients. I had to get tested for COVID-19 all while having cancer and being alone.”

On Feb. 28, 2020, Fragello received another PET scan result that changed her life yet again. This time, for the better.

“Every single doctor I saw said it was a miracle that the cancer was all gone somehow, it just disappeared after my halfway PET scan,” she said. “It was completely gone.”

Sitting in the doctor’s office, Fragello said she had no idea what to expect after her halfway mark PET scan, but the unimaginable happened.

“I remember it was my mom and I in the doctor’s office and the doctor came in after my PET scan and she just looked confused at us, and all of a sudden she just read ‘PET scan reads, no evidence of disease.’”

A vibration of emotions that Fragello said felt like a lightning bolt came over her when hearing those words.

“My mom and I looked at each other and just cried,” she said. “I will never forget that moment because I defeated this thing. I don’t have cancer and I had stage four cancer. My body did this. A lot of people don’t get to experience that who have stage four cancer.”

One of Fragello’s roommates, Alex Quinonez, said she had put her trust in God when she got the news Fragello had cancer, and she had a good feeling about her halfway PET scan.

“Three months after she started chemo, I had the best feeling about the PET scan,” Quinonez said. “I had been praying to God and I could just feel in my bones she beat it.” 

Even though Fragello was cancer free, the fight was not over as she still had to finish out her chemotherapy until May due to protocol.

“Because I was still in so much pain and battling every day to rise above the sickness brought on by chemo, it was hard for me to wrap my mind around it because we were still in battle mode; it hadn’t felt like we won the war yet,” Wergin said.

That evening, the family celebrated with a homemade cake with the words “cancer free” written across it, according to Wergin.

The day of her last chemotherapy session, she said it was the happiest day of her life.

“The last day of chemo was the best day of my life,” she said. “Nothing will beat it, I don’t think my wedding day will beat it at all.”

Even though Fragello did not know what the day would be like, she said she was excited. Little did she know, childhood friends from her hometown of Pittsburgh would have driven to Gainesville to surprise her.

“There is a group of nine of us who are best friends since the fourth or fifth grade and I had not seen them in almost a year,” she said.

Fragello was surprised to see all eight of her Pittsburgh friends and her whole neighborhood standing outside her house cheering as she drove home with her family.

“Seeing all these people with these ‘cancer free’ signs was so cool and we were driving through our neighborhood, and all of a sudden I saw these eight girls walk out from behind my house and it was all my best friends from Pittsburgh,” she said. “I stood there thinking this was not real. We just all ran into each other and cried.”

One of those eight girls is Gabi Albesi, who said this moment was a moment in her life like none other.

“My friends and I drove 13 hours to surprise Rosa on her last day of chemo,” Albesi said. “I’m still not sure how we successfully pulled off the surprise, but it was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I can’t really describe how I felt when I saw her face in person, my whole body went numb. It was one of those days, filled with so much joy that you could never forget it.”

A defining moment of that day for Fragello was when she closed her eyes and let go of some balloons, the same way she let cancer go out of her life.

“I let go of that sickness,” she said. “I am cancer free. It’s an overpowering emotion that just makes you feel numb.”

Being a Christian and having religion being important to Fragello, she said she accredits God to being the major source of her quick and inexplicable healing.

“God has been attached to my hip,” she said. “I have never felt his presence more. He has become my best friend. I have learned that God is never not with you, even when you don’t think He is, He is right there. I think there were numerous things that healed me, but above it all was God.”

Fragello said she was able to overcome her battle through God-given resources of faith, positivity and courage, and has taken an old proverb to a new meaning.

“A lot of people say everything happens for a reason, and before I got cancer I believed that,” she said. “I don’t think God gives you cancer. I think your body develops cancer and He makes a miracle out of it. I think that is a big thing I learned. Lymphoma is environmental, I don’t know how I got it, but I did, and God made it transform my life into something beautiful.”

Although she lost her hair during chemotherapy, Fragello said it gave her a new outlook on herself for the better.

“I had this long, gorgeous hair that was a part of me and everyone would comment how long and beautiful it was,” she said. “Shaving my head gave me a piece of my identity that was truly me, and it took off a piece of my identity that did not matter and showed me who I really was. I just have this true confidence and true beauty and just pure, and it gave me a sense of what really matters and who I really am, I just feel like you can see my personality now because that takes over everything.”

“God turned this curse into a literal blessing because I can’t imagine being that girl with the long hair.”

Fragello bought a wig, but said it just was not for her.

“It was like I was masking myself, and I didn’t want to mask myself,” she said. “This was a process and this was what’s happening and I’m not going to hide it. I am going to be the rawest version of myself right now and if I am going through cancer, I am going to let people know that, and if that is by having a bald head and people staring at me, that’s OK.”

Wergin recalled her daughter sharing an image of her bald head for the first time with everyone to be a defining moment in the journey she was going through alongside Fragello.

“I know it was hard for her and it was such a change to see herself, and for all of us to see her, without hair,” Wergin said. “But she didn’t stay down long, she wiped her tears, put some pink lipstick on and took a picture of herself. She posted it to her Instagram account for everyone to see. She didn’t want to hide or be ashamed of her bald head, she wanted to remind people that she was alive and fighting hard.”

She was not the only one who learned lifelong lessons during her cancer journey, but those close to her were inspired as well.

A high school friend from Gainesville, Rowan Cassarly, said that Fragello’s six-month battle with cancer taught her the importance of life.

“I learned never to take anything for granted and that life is short,” Cassarly said. “I also learned that it is important to hold on tight to the people you love. Watching Rosa go through all of this taught me what true bravery looks like. She is absolutely fearless.” 

Each day, Fragello lives as her new self and remembers the lessons that she learned from battling cancer. 

“The smallest things make me happy,” Fragello said. “I am so appreciative of so much like just being able to be in the shower and wash my left side of my chest, not every Friday do I have to go feel sick, and taking a walk outside. Everything is a blessing to me. 

“Sometimes I will have moments when I am with the people that I love and I will just start crying because I just feel blessed to be here because I saw how quick life can be taken and just how special life is. Material things do not matter.”

At present, Fragello said she feels good and not sick at all anymore.

“I have never felt more like me,” she said. “I feel all that tiredness and crazy, tired feelings I used to have are gone. I have all this energy, happiness and peace within me. I have never felt so whole.”