One year ago, Lilian Schaffer was a normal teenager. She was a passionate junior rider out of Cindy and Kelli Cruciotti’s Serenity Show Stables in Elizabeth, Colorado, hung out with her friends at school, was ardent about her artwork, and loved makeup. But something was off – for six months she was seeking answers as to why she was extremely fatigued and suffering from uncontrollable full-body itching, insomnia, and night sweats.
“My health continued to decline and my symptoms grew even more debilitating. My itching became so unbearable that my muscles would spasm, I had bleeding sores on my legs, I would be awake for 40 hours at a time, and I had to wear pajamas to school,” Lilian explains. “I couldn't eat, stand up, breathe, or even think because I was so sick and weak.”
Following an excruciating six months and a string of consistent misdiagnoses from specialists and doctors, Lilian was hit with the news that would change the course of her life forever – she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Hodgkin's Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that develops in the lymphatic system from cells known as lymphocytes. According to Cancer.org, the disease affects over 8,500 Americans every year, most commonly between the ages of 15 and 40 years old. Although the five-year survival rate for all diagnosed patients is 86 percent, Lilian had to fight tooth and nail to defeat the disease.
Once Lilian’s doctors discovered a football-sized tumor in her chest, she was immediately admitted to Children’s Hospital Colorado to begin treatments, which included surgeries, 70 chemotherapy sessions, and 14 rounds of radiation. For Peter and Alison Schaffer, the news was devastating; a parent’s worst nightmare. But for their strong-willed and tenacious daughter, this would be a small blip that she was determined to battle with persistence and ferocity.
For the next 12 months, Lilian found strength through her horses and an unexpected character came into her life – Denver Bronco’s cornerback and return specialist, Adam “Pacman” Jones. It’s not every day you see a football player riding a horse, and it’s definitely a rarity to see a professional NFL All-Pro in the saddle. But for Lilian, it’s normal and a sight that she’s become used to as she’s developed a deep-rooted bond with Adam. Working as Adam’s agent, Lilian’s father grew close to the football player and he was welcomed into their family with open arms.
“I met Lilian about 10 years ago when I was playing for the Cincinnati Bengals and we traveled to Denver to play the Broncos,” Adam explains. “The first day we met we discovered we had a lot in common, more than her dad. We both loved horses, fashion, drawing, and music. From that day forward I considered her my little sister.”
Adam was one of the first people to hear of Lilian’s news. Although Adam and Peter have daily phone conversations concerning football matters and business, the discovery of Lilian’s diagnosis was difficult to comprehend for the 35-year-old athlete.
“When she was diagnosed, [Peter] called me and told me the news – it hit me like a ton of bricks. Initially, I felt so helpless and then I rallied and I wanted to do whatever I could to help her in her battle. I wanted her to know that many people around the country were supporting her and with her on her fight,” Adam says.
“I was impressed with her bravery and positive attitude throughout her treatments. She never once complained or said anything negative. She went to treatment every day as her mission.”
For Lilian, using her horses as an outlet and having the support of Adam, her friends, family, and riding community was something she used every day in fighting the disease.
“I couldn't have fought lymphoma without my horses by my side. I could've been having the worst day, but the second I saw their sweet faces, I forgot about anything else and suddenly found the energy to ride,” Lilian says. “I believe that riding daily also helped ease the impact of some of the side effects from chemo. My horses were the reason I got up every day and were so amazing throughout the whole journey.”
Lilian’s determination and will to fight her disease was impressive for a young girl. Through all her doctor’s appointments, chemo treatments, and radiation, she never let that get in the way of riding.
“Battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma was definitely not easy, but I was so sick before my diagnosis that any side effect from treatment was easy in comparison. Although I had chemo almost every day for six months and then radiation for three weeks after, I rode my horses every day, and even worked out,” Lilian says. “Whether it had been excruciating bone pain from my steroids, or nausea, or low blood counts, or exhaustion, I kept riding.”
Uniting People and New Perspectives
Although they don’t get to see each other every day, Lilian’s battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma developed her and Adam’s bond into an unbreakable friendship. Not only a confident and emotional supporter through her fight, Adam also dedicated his 2018 NFL football season to Lilian and created custom cleats, towels, and tee-shirts with a photo of Lilian riding to "let her know from a 1,000 miles away we were with her and she was not alone.”
“She made me think about life and never take anything for granted – it makes me do a little extra every day whether it is at work and watching film or extra sprints or with my family, whatever; two more sets of pushups or 10 minutes more of watching film – it is all worth it,” Adam says of his newfound dedication and passion inspired by Lilian.
“If she could go to seven hours of chemo and then go and ride her three horses, then I can do this. As much as she was going through her battle it inspired me to go through my daily battles with more focus, passion, and purpose, and much less complaining.”
Adam may have found inspiration in Lilian through her fight, but Lilian also found inspiration in Adam for his dedication to football.
“Adam gives 110 percent effort no matter what in his sport, and I try to do the same in mine,” Lilian says. “It made me proud that Adam dedicated his season to my fight. Not only did I feel supported, but not many other teenagers can say that a professional athlete looks up to them.”
One year later, Lilian is happily cancer-free and gets to watch Adam play in person for the Denver Broncos. Despite taking a gap year from school, she plans on heading to college and leading the normal life of a teenager – with her horses, of course.
All photos courtesy of Lilian Schaffer.