Iowa Woman's Skin 'Dots' Turn Out to Be Symptom of Rare Blood Cancer

A 20-year-old Iowa woman who noticed some seemingly innocuous spots on her skin was later shocked to discover that they were a symptom of blood cancer.

Helaina Hillyard first became aware of the unusual "dots" after college basketball practice in November, 2021, at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jam Press reported.

Hillyard had felt a little tired during the practice, but didn't think much of it at the time. However, within a few hours the dots had grown larger and appeared all over her body.

Initially, the she assumed the marks were just bruising from playing sport. But after the practice she met her sister, who suspected that something was wrong and that she needed to go to hospital immediately, The Hawk Eye reported.

Hillyard's sister took her to a local hospital where doctors conducted blood tests. These revealed that her platelet levels were very low. Platelets are tiny blood cells that help form clots in order to prevent bleeding.

"They did some tests and found that my platelets were really, really low. Like 150,000 is normal and mine was like 4,000," Hillyard told the Eye.

Doctors also told her that the round spots on her skin were called petechiae and that they appear as a result of bleeding.

The woman was then transferred immediately to an emergency room at another hospital where she underwent a bone marrow biopsy. After the test, doctors diagnosed her with acute lymphoblastic leukemia—a form of blood cancer.

"I was in disbelief and shock," Hillyard told Jam Press. "I could have nearly died if I waited a few more hours to go to the doctor. The doctor in the ER said I was extremely lucky I hadn't played basketball [since that day] because I could have easily suffered a brain bleed or internal bleeding."

"I never in a million years could think something like this could happen to anyone in my life let alone myself," she said.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), otherwise known as acute lymphocytic leukemia, is a type of cancer that starts in the bone marrow—the spongy, inner part of bones where new blood cells are produced.

The cancer develops from immature forms of lymphocytes—a type of white blood cell. It can progress rapidly and aggressively if not treated promptly.

Symptoms of the disease may include bleeding from the gums, bone pain, fever, frequent or severe nosebleeds, lumps caused by swollen lymph nodes, pale skin, shortness of breath, and weakness or fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic.

ALL is a rare cancer, with the American Cancer Society estimating that it accounts for less than half of one percent of all cancers in the United States. Nevertheless, it is the most common type of leukemia in children and the risk for developing the disease is highest in children under five years of age.

After this age the risk declines until the mid-20s and begins to rise slowly again after the age of 50.

Hillyard immediately began treatment, undergoing blood transfusions and chemotherapy, which she is currently receiving every 10 days. She has had to temporarily pause her studies while she focuses on her treatment.

Viral Video

After finding out about her diagnosis, Hillyard posted a video on TikTok explaining the situation, which has since received more than 5.9 million views and 500,000 likes. The woman said she wanted to share her story in order to raise awareness about this form of cancer.

"I wanted to show it's possible to try to keep a positive spin on things no matter how bleak things may seem," she said.

"I received lots of different reactions. I unintentionally scared some people—and worried some that their spots might be cancer and they reached out to me with questions. But I also received so many nice supportive messages and I couldn't be more grateful."

A cancer patient
A file photo of an individual in hospital. A 20-year-old Iowa woman who noticed some seemingly innocuous spots on her skin was later shocked to discover that they were a symptom of blood cancer. iStock