Defying the Odds: UW-Whitewater graduate beats cancer three times

22-year-old Hollyn Peterson spent a majority of her early childhood in the hospital after being diagnosed with a Wilms tumor at the age of five.
Published: May. 21, 2023 at 10:32 PM CDT
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WHITEWATER, Wis. (WMTV) - Twenty-two-year-old Hollyn Peterson spent a majority of her early childhood in the hospital after being diagnosed with a Wilms tumor at the age of five.

The rare kidney cancer that mainly affects children led to her first major surgery to remove the tumor, which was the size of a Nerf football, and her kidney.

Originally from Waukesha, Peterson missed over 650 days of school as a child. She fell behind in school but while she was in the hospital, she turned to art.

“Art has always been an outlet for me,” she said. “I remember at one point taking markers and scribbling over my moms arm and just being so frustrated and angry like ‘Why can’t you take this away from me?’ and not being able to understand why this was happening to me and what was going on. Even though they tried to explain it to a five-year-old.”

She learned how to draw from books that she was given by friends and family members to pass the time in the hospital.

“I’d sit there for hours learning how to draw these little fantasy characters whether they were fairies or mermaids or princesses,” Peterson said. “I spent a lot of time just drawing and coloring and using that as my outlet for distraction. But as I got older, it still was an outlet but it became an outlet more for a way for me to heal instead of a distraction of the pain that I was going through.”

But the paid didn’t stop there. Her cancer came back when she was seven. This time it had spread to her lungs. And then again when she was eight.

“My doctors didn’t know what to do for me. And they had absolutely no answers,” she said. “But being eight, I wasn’t ready to die, as I don’t think any eight-year-old would be.”

Peterson and her parents searched the country for a miracle treatment but were turned away by hospitals and doctors left and right. Eventually they found a doctor in California that was treating another child with the same type of cancer, but the treatment had never been done in Wisconsin. Peterson ended up being the first patient in the state to do five months of high-dose chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow stem cell transplant, which doctors said was a shot in the dark for her type of cancer.

“We didn’t know how long it would be before it came back. So I was constantly just living on the edge or with this fear of what would tomorrow bring? Which is why I think I’m very focused on now and today and have a hard time thinking about the future,” Peterson said.

But her future, whether she knew it or not, was brighter than she expected. Peterson graduated from the University of Wisconsin Whitewater last weekend. She not only received a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in painting and her teaching license, she was a student speaker at commencement.

“After battling cancer three times, I did not know if I would live long enough, or if I would be smart enough to even dream of going to college let along excelling, earning a 4.0 and speaking at commencement, yet here I am,” she said during her commencement speech.

Now 14 years of showing no signs of cancer, she still faces side effects that impact her daily. Over a year ago now, Peterson had to have another major surgery while at UW-Whitewater, a hysterectomy.

“That was life shaking because it was just another thing being taken away from me,” she said. “It’s a very private matter that isn’t talked about and I’ve struggled to talk about because it’s a very intimate detail in my life. However, I find it really important to bring up because it’s like this is what cancer did. Because of what I went through as a kid and because of the harsh treatments and because of the toxic drugs that they gave me because there is no cure, this was another part of the price for me to pay.”

Peterson never drew up this path of survival as a child after being given a two percent chance of survival. But now, she’s a three-time cancer survivor.

She is now finishing up student teaching in Waukesha before she heads to New York to continue her education at Syracuse University in the fall for her Masters degree. Peterson said she’s not sure where her future will take her after that, but she hopes to continue to educate others, share her art, and spread awareness for childhood cancer.

Peterson’s art can be found on her website.

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