It’s late March and the weather is still stifling hot in Perth, my recently purchased Havianas still have a good few months of use left in them, this very thought makes me smile as I cruise down the aisles of our local supermarket.
I reach down to grab a box of this new super food Quinoa and suddenly realise I’ve lost a thong somehow! Mortified that I’d been pacing the supermarket aisles with only one thong, I remove the remaining one, shove it in my bag and make a bee-line for the door with tears welling in my eyes. A friend told me recently that she cried at the supermarket whilst queuing at the register after a nasty breakup. I barely blinked to this confession – tears in public places are a regular occurrence for me since I was diagnosed with cancer one month after my 30th birthday.
“Happy 30th birthday to me”… six months of grueling chemotherapy has caused the loss of feeling in my hands, feet, ankles and lower legs. This, mixed with constant pins and needles, random electric pulses, and pain, are all common side effects of the chemotherapy regime I had undertaken.
In February 2011 I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, two weeks later I underwent surgery for the removal of three quarters of my colon. A fortnight later I underwent intense hormone therapy to harvest my eggs in a very short time frame and straight after that I started six months of chemotherapy. I quit my new job in public relations to face this rather large curve ball life had thrown at me.
The first two months of treatment were so busy. I was either very drugged up, under a general anesthetic, asleep, or in a waiting room at either the; surgeons, oncologists, or fertility specialists. I was totally bombarded with information and medical jargon that at times I felt like I needed to employ a ‘personal medical mediator’ just to take notes and make phone calls for me. The language used, along with the bedside manner, or lack of emotion these specialists had (or didn’t have) was mind boggling. I left many appointments in tears thinking why couldn’t they just smile and ensure me that everything would be OK even if it wasn’t? Where was their sympathy…the reassuring shoulder taps that strangers give to strangers, surely they had feelings too and clearly could see I was the emotional type?!!
“No one wants to be held liable, in case they wrongly diagnose you, or things don’t turn out the way they expect,” a friend told me shortly afterwards. Bloody hell! So firstly they all think I’m the suing type, and secondly, can specialists really get it wrong??! Excellent start…
It was a mad rush to try and do everything right, whilst gathering all possible information from any source that was willing to give their expert advice, in a very short period of time. Whether it be my sister’s friend’s father (an ex-oncologist), my boyfriends mothers friend (a bowel cancer survivor), my mum’s golf friends neighbour (a gynecologist), or trusty Google. I tried to retain as much information as humanly possible, whilst very unwell. I was just trying to keep my head above water, nothing had sunk in, and it was all just too much.
I was absolutely terrified of the road ahead and my now bleak future; shattered dreams of the perfect life with two kids living in a cute weatherboard house… all I could believe is that I was totally doomed, how can a 30-yr-old diagnosed with cancer expect to live a long life? Everyone said “you can’t think like that, you’ve got to think positively”… like I hadn’t tried that already.
Surviving chemotherapy was hard, I would go into hospital every fortnight and receive the toxins through an infusa-port which was inserted between my shoulder and neck, this port caused me great discomfort whilst sleeping, wearing a seat belt and carrying a handbag. The first few sessions were bearable, I wasn’t that fazed by needles, hospitals had never bothered me, and I quite liked all the attention. I had five hours to read magazines, eat (mostly junk food as chemotherapy is like having a constant hangover) and chat to visitors. I would have three bad days of nausea and then I would come okay. Apart from the short-term side effects, it was bearable. My boyfriend was my carer at night and my family (mostly my mum) by day, I was very lucky… countless ready made meals and baked cakes by mum’s friends, lots of magazines and visitors.
By half way, once the toxins had accumulated within my body, it was another story. I had picked up a cold and my world become a very dark fog, the sickness lasted longer, and soon I only had a few ‘average days’, it was like living a continuous nightmare. At night I would dream horrible events and situations and in the morning it took me a few hours to realise they weren’t true and weren’t going to come true, people started to become evil, the days were never ending, life was now an upward battle.
Halfway through my treatment I was lucky enough to be able to fly to Melbourne and stay with my sister, her husband, and their one-year-old boy. I was to continue my treatment in a hospital that my sister had researched and booked – it was a good distraction. After that I spent a week in Sydney with one of my best friends Clare who was six months pregnant. We quickly realised we had the same routine; we ate a lot of cake, couldn’t walk very far and had afternoon naps every day – a perfect match.
Just when I never thought the nightmare was going to end, I finished my twelve sessions of treatment. I would like to write about the feeling of excitement, relief and happiness but the truth was that I was so fogged up with chemicals I don’t actually remember.
I got the all clear in February this year and can now proudly say I’m NED (no evidence of disease – a very cool term in the cancer world). I told no one when my final scans were, I cried my eyes out to the radiologist in the change room, she held my robe closed to stop me flashing my see-through paper undies to everyone whilst I wept, and yes she gave me the reassuring shoulder tap I needed.
My tumour had been small, it hadn’t spread to any other part of my body but my oncologist recommended chemotherapy as ‘life insurance’ to ‘flush your system’. My grandmother had bowel cancer at 33, during her time chemotherapy hadn’t been invented; she had radiotherapy and lived another 17 years.
For all cancer patients or cancer survivors out there – I know I was lucky, no spreading is like winning lotto, my ‘stats’ are good. I haven’t come to that realisation yet but what I have come to is that life doesn’t make sense, the only other two people I know at my age who have had cancer are two of the most amazing, caring and beautiful people I know, how is that fair?
All I know is whatever cards you’re dealt, you have to make the most of it, live each day the best you can and do what makes you happy. I was lucky to find my partner when I did, he stuck by me and we have a stronger relationship because of it, he is my rock and my best friend. I spent my first 30 years trying to please everyone else (the catholic guilt i think)….the next 30 years will be a lot different. I also try not to sweat the small stuff and to cherish the big moments.
I don’t want to become a ‘life preacher’ by all means, but what I do want to say is for anyone who hasn’t had a good kick up the butt, do what makes you happy, you never know what’s around the corner.
Also, intuitively, if you feel something’s wrong, go and get it checked out. I went for years accepting that I had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), I never questioned it and neither did they. But my gut instinct always told me that it was something more than that.
If caught in time, 90% of bowel cancer cases can be treated successfully and hopefully that includes me.