Five years ago, I would never have pictured my life the way it is now. I was 14, happy, studying hard and figuring out who I was, and where my place in the world was. However, my health, and my life, began to spiral downhill. I was getting more and more tired, which I initially put down to being a teenager and not getting enough sleep at night! But then I noticed I was itching a lot, and that got progressively worse over time. It got so bad that I would lie awake at night scratching my legs until the skin was raw. I would never get my legs out in public and would cry at the sight of them. They were so raw that having a shower or taking a bath would be absolute agony. I'd been back and forth to the doctors a few times and they put it down to eczema (which I'd suffered from as a child), combined with stress, and was prescribed various steroid creams. A lump had also developed in my neck, about the size of a small chickens egg, and I would wake up at night in hot sweats.
9 or so months went by and I was no closer to any explanation. I was 15 years old and scared. I had no idea what was happening to my body but I know it wasn't normal. My GP had moved on from his initial diagnoses, and told my mum that i was suffering psychological distress, and this was manifesting in a form of physical self-abuse; essentially, I was hurting myself through scratching because I was stressed. He also told me that I'd begin to feel much better if I put my "mind to it". I must tell you now Doctor, that I tried my best, and it didn't exactly go as planned.
The next few months feel like a whirlwind when I look back at them. I can't remember a lot of the smaller details, except I know that on the 23 May 2012, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of cancer. I had an operation the same day to remove the lump (which was a tumour) and a Central Line fitted. Five days after that I started intensive chemotherapy treatment.
Four years on and I'm thankful to be able to say that I'm in remission, and there are no current signs of any cancer returning. However, the cancer journey didn't end when chemotherapy did. I am left with a list of life changing side effects: chronic pain, chronic fatigue, peripheral neuropathy, nerve damage, anxiety, and probable infertility. At 16 years old I had to come to terms with the fact I may never be able to be a mother, something which I had never even considered before.
There are many connotations around cancer; that it affects old people and middle aged women. That women only really get breast cancer. That teenagers can't get cancer. However seven young people are diagnosed with cancer in the UK every day. That's over 2,500 new cases every year, and these statistics don't include relapses of illness.
Stephen Sutton has become a household name in the UK, after he raised over £5million for Teenage Cancer Trust before his death in 2014. I was fortunate enough to have known Ste, and feel very lucky of this. Stephen Sutton was one of those 2,500 once. One person made that much difference for the next 5,000 newly diagnosed patients.
But if teenagers are not aware of the risks and of the warning signs, there will be far too many cases of teenage cancer that are caught too late. Early diagnoses is key to successful treatment.
The main signs of cancer in teenagers are:
1. Pain that doesn't go away with pain killers
2. Lump, bump or swelling
3. Extreme tiredness
4. Significant weight loss
5. Changes to a mole
Cancer is not an old person's disease. It doesn't discriminate. Remember to be vigilant.
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