There's no mistaking it. Cancer is everywhere. Pink ribbons; emotional TV adverts; charitable leaflets dispersed between waiting rooms and coffee shops. These days, cancer almost has its own culture. But how does it feel to be living its realities when you're still a teenager, the time of your life when you should typically be at your carefree prime?
I never expected to become a cancer patient, not least in my teens. Then again, I don't think anyone does. But somehow, like the approximately 2,300 annual others, in 2011 I found myself well and truly within this category.
I was 15 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. Hodgkins accounts for less than 1% of all UK cancer cases, yet is among the most common in young people. Despite this, I don't think it's particularly well-known among teenagers, so hopefully my blog will make readers aware of what it's like to undergo teenage-cancer then come out the other side.
I'm definitely more 'media' than 'medicine', but I guess an at least brief description should fit in here. Hodgkins Lymphoma is a blood cancer, formed when the lymphatic system's white blood cells start inexplicably multiplying. This results in jelly-like masses (see, I told you I'm not very convincing at sounding medical), which usually attach themselves to the neck, chest or groin, and NHS Choices describes Hodgkins as 'a relatively aggressive cancer that can spread quickly throughout the body.' However, it's also among the most easily treatable - and I'm proud to reflect this in my survivorship.
I'm now 19 and healthy, apart from my, ahem, lack of talent in the exercise front. I've just started my second year studying my dream degree of English Literature and Journalism at Cardiff University and am loving life hopping between coffee shops, singing way too loudly to Taylor Swift, achieving my ambitions of writing for different forms of media, and exploring new places, so you could say life is running pretty smoothly for me. But my situation hasn't always been plain sailing.
My symptoms began in winter 2010, but were so minor there was no way I was bothering my doctor with them. I'm talking itchy hands and feet, with a bit of tiredness chucked in for good measure. However, before long these escalated into problems worth discussing - breathlessness; a lump in my neck; and night sweats. In typical 'there's-nothing- wrong-with-me' manner, I blamed the drenching sweats on wrapping up to beat the January cold; and the laboured breathing on my intolerance to fitness. But when you can barely walk upstairs, even I acknowledged the big deal.
So, after a few GP visits, I was hospitalised then eventually diagnosed in January 2011. My illness had by now reached Stage 2B, so was relatively advanced, and I started chemo and steroids straightaway. There I remained until the May, and since then I've happily lived within the wonderful world of remission.
I may have skimmed through this period pretty quickly, but what I really want to focus on is what I've learnt from the whole saga.
Cancer is literally formed of haywire cells, but figuratively of emotions and lessons, so here are my top 10 tips for anyone - patient, survivor or curious reader, regarding the whole cancer sphere:
1. You won't think it at first, but cancer can improve your life. I may have lost hair, a 'normal' teenage experience (if anything can ever be classified as normal!) and a total peace of mind regarding health, but I gained opportunities; inspiration; friends; experiences and confidence!
2. Life gets better. It may seem like you'll be confined to the ward forever, but someday it'll be a distant memory.
3. If in doubt, check it out. It's probably not cancer, but sadly it is getting more common. Persistence is key - my symptoms could've been longer dismissed as glandular fever if I hadn't returned to the doctors.
4. There ARE people out there who understand. I got involved with Teenage Cancer Trust from the start - they're just one of the incredible networks happy to help.
5. Take each day at a time. Cancer can be overwhelming business, one where it's easy to fret about your future and whether you even have one, so focus on the here and now.
6. Make plans. I know I just said to take it slowly, but working towards goals to mark Cancerversaries brings some serious motivation.
7. Good vibes are the best kind of vibes. Positive thinking isn't a bad way to conduct your life.
8. Say yes to things! You may be surprised by how many opportunities cancer brings. Work experience; chances to break your comfort zone and try new things such as charity abseils; extreme sports; meeting people; performing; even realising your dream career or travel potentials. Nothing to lose by trying new ventures.
9. Don't feel guilty for taking time out. Cancer is tiring business, and you're at the centre of yours. So listen to your body and rest!
10. Your illness doesn't have to define you. You're still the same person, just perhaps an improved version - having being made more emphatic of others, or now realising why to live to the fullest.