health

Kristen moved overseas to follow her dreams, and then found out she had cancer. She was only 21 years old.

Cancer Council - Girls' Night In
Thanks to our brand partner, Cancer Council - Girls' Night In

Almost half a decade ago, Kristen embarked on the adventure of a lifetime: travelling around the world and eventually moving to the UK to pursue her dream of living and working in London.

It’s hard to imagine that this same 21-year-old would then be diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.

Now 24, Kristen is sharing her story to inspire others to host a Cancer Council Girls’ Night In during October and raise money to help beat women’s cancers, as well as make women aware of how cancer can come into people’s lives.  Cancer Council’s Girls’ Night In is a fantastic chance to get your favourite ladies together, and raise much needed funds to help Cancer Council support thousands of Australian women affected by a breast or gynaecological cancer.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and what took you to London?

I love travelling – it’s the thing I’m most passionate about – so when I was 20, my older sister Elsa and I decided to take a working holiday in the UK. We travelled throughout Europe, I landed a good job in London and I was living my dream.

Elsa (left) and Kristen (right) on their working holiday in the UK. Image: Supplied.

2. How did you find out you had cancer?

While I was in London, I started having stomach cramps and feeling really tired. One day the pain got really bad so I called in sick at work then went to the doctor. They initially thought I was pregnant, so they had me tested for pregnancy straight away, and when the results came back negative, they rushed me to the hospital for appendicitis.

When I woke up 11 hours later, the doctors had told me that they hadn’t removed my appendix – they couldn’t find it because my abdomen was completely full of what we now know to be tumours. After a series of tests, they gave me a call and said “Come in tomorrow morning and bring a loved one with you.” From that moment, I knew things weren’t looking good.

I went in the next morning with Elsa and they told me that I had cancer. The news literally turned my life upside down.

I had to make some pretty big decisions as to whether to go home or undertake treatment in London, but I was happy with my team [of doctors] and I ultimately decided to stay.

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3. What was treatment like? What got you through it?

My treatment plan was a mix of chemotherapy and drugs. As their effectiveness is very dependent on you as an individual and how your body reacts to the therapy, that was the first point of call. I then had an 11-hour surgery that consisted of a full hysterectomy to get all of the cancer out. At that point, the cancer had spread all the way through my abdomen and up to my liver. The surgery was a success and they had managed to get rid of all the visible cancer.

I had a pretty rocky recovery, which included more chemo. I lost a lot of weight, used a walking stick and had to go through rehabilitation to get better - and slowly I did. I was declared cancer-free and was in remission, which lasted about a year.

"I had a pretty rocky recovery." Image: Supplied.

In that time, I went back to living a normal life. My working visa for the UK expired, so I moved to Canada for a while. I was in Toronto for about three months and had my usual check-up. They had discovered that the cancer was back, and ultimately I decided to go back home to Brisbane to be with my family and undergo more chemo and a clinical trial.

The treatment shrunk the cancer, but they weren’t able to get rid of it all. I was declared to be in partial remission and basically they’ll be able to manage the cancer as long as my body keeps responding to the drugs.

4. How did this affect you and your family?

It turned our whole world upside down. It’s been tough for my parents and big sister to see me go through this. It’s put my life on hold in certain ways, but it’s also accelerated a lot of things – it’s made me appreciate the people who are around me more and live more in the moment.

5. How is your relationship with your sister?

We’re best friends and we do everything together. She’s my rock. She’s been my eyes and ears throughout all of this – she keeps on top of new treatments and drugs, she’s online in support groups and she’s really passionate about advocacy. We’ve both come to share my story because it’s a good example of how cancer can come into people’s lives and change everything.

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"We’re best friends and we do everything together." Image: Supplied.

6. What is the best part about hosting a Cancer Council Girls' Nights In?

Cancer Council’s Girls’ Night In campaign gets women in a room together to open up the dialogue around women’s cancers. Whether it’s telling their stories or talking about symptoms, asking people how they’re feeling, it’s a chance to pause and think about it and what it means and how it can affect you.

7. What would you say to Australian women to encourage them to host their own Cancer Council Girls’ Night In this October?

If we can take the opportunity to get together, get women to speak about their health, learn something new, raise awareness and funds to help beat women’s cancers, it’ll make a huge difference. Everything helps – whether it’s going towards early detection tools or new drug treatments, it’s all important. Cancer could happen to anyone. If I had known about symptoms earlier, maybe my story would have turned out differently.

8. What are your top tips for organising a Cancer Council Girls’ Night In?

My top tips would be to set a theme – mine is a pyjama party, but it could be anything – make a Facebook event and invite all the important women in your life, and really take the opportunity to focus on women’s cancers while still having a good time.

9. After you've hosted your Cancer Council Girls' Night In, what's your next big adventure?

My next adventure is to travel Asia. I definitely want to go to China, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. I want to see the Great Wall of China because it’s always fascinated me, and of course eat all the delicious food.

What sort of theme would you have for your Girls' Night In?