Girl goes to business school and then gets a MBA. Girl does a variety of jobs before deciding she really wants to follow her dream of going to fashion school. Girl draws up portfolio, gets into fashion school, starts the semester and … finds out she has cancer.

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Photo credit: Karolina Zabawa

While this might sound like a quick draw up of a movie plot, it’s part of Karolina Zabawa’s [Za-bah-vah] life story.

Years ago, before Zabawa was ever even diagnosed with cancer, she learned to knit and began a scarf. She never finished it, but picking it back up again when she was traveling to doctors appointments, it led her to find her first “real passion in life.”

It’s a passion that’s now helping her pay medical bills.

Zabawa’s is a yarn that knits together the harrowing details many who have battled with cancer might find all too familiar: the “hangover” of chemotherapy; the challenge of being unable to work; the thankfulness of being insured but still seeing mounting bills; and the finding of a coping mechanism that is defining her future.

From MBA to FIT

In 2012, Zabawa moved from Philadelphia to New York City where her sister generously agreed to share her small, studio apartment so Zabawe, who’s in her late 20s, could follow her dream of going to fashion school.

Zabawa — who is comfortable talking about her life in only the way someone who has been through cancer can be —  calls the period of her life before fashion school and before cancer a “dull but interesting” story.

She had done the whole Drexel-University-business-school-and-got-her-MBA thing. After graduation, she worked for Campbell’s soup for a while, worked in a hotel and for an attorney.

“I didn’t have an interest in what I was doing. I was just going day-to-day, and it was so dull,” Zabawa said. “I was always under impression that I blew it when I didn’t go to fashion school out of high school. I thought I would always be doing these blah jobs.”

Then something clicked — or snapped. She can’t quite put her finger on what it was that made her pick up a box of colored pencils after 10 years and put together a portfolio that, with a few sewing samples, would ultimately get her accepted into New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

“When I was accepted [it] was the happiest days of my life,” Zabawa said.

When what you think never will happen to you…happens

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Karolina Zabawa started at FIT in the winter 2013 semester. During that time, she was diagnosed with cancer. She delayed treatment to finish her first semester, which she says many thought was crazy. (Photo credit: Karolina Zabawa)

Zabawa admits that when she headed to FIT for the winter semester last year, she wasn’t the most fit herself.

“I would sometimes eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for lunch,” she said.

Despite what might be considered poor eating habits, Zabawa was pretty trim, which she chalks up to a good metabolism.

In doing her due diligence and going to the doctor for a check up, he noticed her lymph nodes were swollen and referred her to a specialist. Like many, she assumed it was likely nothing and procrastinated. When she eventually went, she was told it was likely cancer — lymphoma — but they still needed a scan to be sure.

Sitting in some of her first weeks of classes she found she wasn’t thinking about designs and textiles. Instead, she was thinking “holy s***, I have to go in for a PET scan tomorrow to determine if it’s going to be cancer or not.”

Even while she was waiting for the results, Zabawa thought maybe it was just an infection or maybe it would “just go away,” but, then again, “you never think it’s going to happen to you,” she said.

And it did.

There’s a ‘best kind’ of cancer?

“If you’re going to have any kind of cancer, it’s the best kind to have,” Zabawa remembered her sister saying once she was diagnosed, specifically with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “The survival rate is high.”

The hardest part was telling her parents. Sitting at their home in New Jersey, she could barely get out the words.

She thought one day she would have to tell her parents “Hey, I’m getting married. Hey, I’m having a baby.” There’s no way to say “Hey, I have cancer.”

“I never imagined myself in that situation at my age,” she said.

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Karolina lost her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes as a result of chemotherapy treatment. (Photo credit: Karolina Zabawa)

Once the words were forced from her hyperventilating mouth, there was no procrastinating. Zabawa said her parent’s jumped into “rescue me” mode. Following the suggestion of a doctor, they visited a woman who is like a “cancer coach,” someone who helps patients get through all the various stages of diagnosis and treatment.

The first thing Sharon Lee Parker said to Zabawa was “hello, and you will survive this and you will live through this.” Though Zabawa admits that she knew she would (that’s her personality), “it was nice to hear it from someone else.”

Zabawa had wanted to avoid chemotherapy, but looking into holistic medicine, which doesn’t have as much scientific backing and isn’t covered by insurance, she settled for the treatment that pumps cancer-killing drugs into the body.

While chemotherapy didn’t come with the symptoms Zabawa expected at first, as the regimen of treatments every two weeks from June 2013 through December, the side effects eventually began to take their toll.

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Zabawa said she used to wear funky false eyelashes to her treatments because they made the nurses laugh. (Photo credit: Karolina Zabawa)

For the first week after a treatment, Zabawa said all she wanted to do was sit on the couch. TV wasn’t entertaining and being around people didn’t help.

A girl at the same fashion school, who had gone through treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, told her treatment was like “having a hangover for six months.” Zabawa says that’s pretty accurate.

By the second week after treatment, she was feeling better. Then it would hit her; she had to do it all over again a day or so later.

It started with a scarf that’s still not done

Years before she was ever diagnosed with cancer, Zabawa began knitting a scarf. It was simple, small but incomplete when she picked it up again on train trips to and from New York City to Hackinsack, N.J., a trip she did before eventually moving in with her parents during treatment.

“I found knitting was very relaxing. It takes my mind off everything else going on,” she said.

Though she still hasn’t finished that scarf — it’s something she wonders if it ever will, or should, be finished — it found her a passion and release. She started by making a new scarf for her best friend. Others then began inquiring about her scarves and she began learning new techniques and patterns, filling orders for specific requests and making a bit of money in return.

“I loved it. It’s become an obsession,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t want to go to sleep because I have an idea in my head and I think, ‘I have to do this, I have to try this out.’

Nantucket knit by Zabawaknits

Nantucket knit by Zabawaknits (Image source: Etsy)

“I know what people mean when they have a real passion in life. You don’t want to stop, you don’t want to put it down.”

Zabawa started an Etsy site to show off some of her designs. Prices for scarves range from $65 up to $200, a cost that some, Zabawa acknowledged, consider steep. But most people she knows understands that it’s partially a fundraiser for her. She said revenue from her sales have helped with some medical bill co-pays.

When you consider that it could take up to three days for a unique, hand-made scarf, the price might not seem too much.

“People don’t realize that. They go to some designer store and willing to pay $500 for a designer scarf, but when it comes to someone making something at home, they think $100 is ridiculous,” Zabawa said. “When you make it by hand, it’s takes a lot of time.”

Martha's Vineyard by Zabawaknits

Martha’s Vineyard by Zabawaknits (Image source: Etsy)

Overall, Zabawa said she feels fortunate to have her own insurance and some coverage through her school. Still, without a job and unable to work because she felt sick for at least two weeks out of the month during treatment, the bills were a stressor.

“I never stressed about health. I was, and still, am stressed about paying the bills,” she said.

But with her last treatment in December and a clean bill of health a week ago, Zabawa is ready to start coming up with a game plan to tackle them.

“I am cancer free,” she said.

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Photo credit: Karolina Zabawa

In the fall, Zabawa is re-enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. As for the scarves, they’ve led Zabawa to consider focusing her studies on knitwear.

“I live for the moment, and I’m not really concerned about the future,” Zabawa said “I know it’s going to be good. Whatever I do I’m going to be happy. That’s what matters.”

This story has been updated.