Two years ago on this day, I was told the unthinkable. At 20 years old, I was told I had cancer – acute lymphoblastic leukaemia to be exact.
At first I couldn’t believe it. I was seemingly healthy, happy in my second year of university and had my whole life planned ahead of me. I think that’s what you’d call denial. Then came anger and depression, crying in the doctor’s office I was overcome with emotion. I remember my mum and stepfather, with me at the time, asked if my diagnosis was a death sentence. I think they were just as shocked as I was; mum held me tight as all the emotions came flooding out. She had tears in her eyes but I remember her being calmer than normal. We had been through so much already, after an awful Christmas of feeling unwell and not knowing what was wrong we finally had an answer. It had taken six weeks and a trip to A&E, a long stay in hospital and numerous tests, but it wasn’t the answer we had hoped for.
As much as I had panicked in the moment, I realised – and this may be hard to understand – there was no reason to worry. I was told, on the day, that there was an effective treatment for this type of leukaemia. I didn’t want my friends and family to fret over what was going to happen, because to me there is always a solution to any problem, even cancer. I knew I was going to be okay.
“Cancer at 20 was my ‘new normal’, I just had to get used to it.”
I zoned out as I was told over the phone what the next steps were. I think that was me finally entering that phase of acceptance. We put a treatment plan in place which mean, during the final phase, I would even be allowed to return to university. Luckily, within four weeks of treatment, I was technically cancer free, so things were looking up. My fight or flight instincts had kicked in, and I was ready to fight.
Due to the type of my leukaemia I was given the option to go on a trial. Now, that makes me sound like a guinea pig, but really it wasn’t as scary as it sounds. All it meant was I had to travel to a haematology and oncology centre in Bristol to receive specialist care on a young adult ward. Thanks to Teenage Cancer Trust, I was able to stay on a ward dedicated to young people aged 16-24, which meant I could spend time with people my own age. I had the freedom to be myself, and I had specialist nurses and support workers who were not only a huge help but were a great support when things were a little tough.
Still, I felt very alone at times. When I wasn’t in hospital I stayed in charity accommodation nearby, and my parents took it in turns coming to stay with me. I missed out on a lot of ‘normal’ university experiences – unfortunately due to the length of treatment I had to leave university and I stayed in Bristol for a total of nine months. I missed out on a lot of things that my friends at university carried on with, which left me feeling left out and a little lost on where my life was going to go. I also had to come to terms with the fact my life would never be the same again. Cancer at 20 was my ‘new normal’, I just had to get used to it.
“Even though I’m still receiving treatment, two years on I know I’ve come to realise I’ve got a lot of my life ahead of me.”
My mum and I came up with an analogy to help me cope with the situation. While at university I was on a bus, all my friends were with me and we were all travelling on the same bus route – but I had to get off at an unknown stop. Now that I’m back at university, I’m on a new bus with different people, but ultimately going the same route.
Although the day of diagnosis is something most people would rather forget, if I hadn’t had cancer I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to meet such amazing people at the hospital and in my new year in university. My treatment also greatly affected my university work; as a Fine Art student cancer has influenced my artwork to take a more personal approach. I’ve found art is, for me, a form of therapy and a new way of sharing my perspective with others. I wouldn’t have had the courage to put myself out there and make a difference to those who’ve had the same experience without my diagnosis.
Cancer can affect everyone in many different ways, but the best thing to do is look at the positive impact it can leave on us. As a young person, cancer has been such a huge part of my life – but that’s only because I hadn’t really had much of a life yet. Now I know I wouldn’t be who I am without my diagnosis – and even though I’m still receiving treatment, two years on I know I’ve come to realise I’ve got a lot of my life ahead of me.
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