opinion

'I'm a 30-year-old cancer patient. Here's how the current COVID numbers make me feel.'

As a 29-year-old newlywed, the words, "you have cancer" was the last thing I ever expected to hear from the doctor in the emergency department. Well, in my case the words were, "you have leukaemia", but still, a cancer diagnosis was the furthest thing from my mind.

Sure, I’d been feeling more tired than usual and had generally been feeling "off", but for the most part, I was living a very healthy and active life. 

I had been given a full bill of health (including normal blood test results) only four months earlier, so to say I was shocked would be an understatement. 

Ironically, the more people I speak to who have gone through similar experiences to myself share the same sentiment – none of us saw it coming.

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My cancer diagnosis came in April 2021. I was very fortunate to be able to start my chemotherapy treatment straight away. 

One thing I never knew prior to my own cancer experience is the vulnerability that chemo causes to your body. 

I was severely warned by my doctors to stay away from anyone who was unwell as even the common cold could be deadly. In fact, our body is so vulnerable during chemo that even the bacteria from our own skin can send us to intensive care (which in my case, it did for a very scary three-day ICU stint). 

So, you can imagine the significant risk that COVID would have had for me. 

Thankfully living in Queensland, we were relatively COVID free at this time. We were having lockdowns here and there, but generally it was well contained. My treatment tracked along well from April through August and I turned 30 during another snap lockdown.

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At the end of August, I faced yet another challenge. The specialist haematologists advised me early on that my type of leukaemia had a high relapse rate and therefore the best treatment for long-term survival was to undergo a bone marrow transplant. 

So in August, using stem cells from an anonymous donor (to whom I will be eternally grateful), I had my transplant and commenced my road to recovery. 

To help my body adjust to the new cells and as my body essentially grows a new immune system from scratch, I have to take strong immunosuppressant medication, but otherwise, my life was beginning to go back to some sense of "normal" (whatever that even looks like now).

Then talk of the borders opening began. To say I was apprehensive was an understatement. 

If I thought my body had been vulnerable to COVID during chemo, my risk post-transplant was a whole new ball game. 

In fact, when you look at the Australian Department of Health website, vulnerable groups at high risk of serious illness of COVID include those who have had blood cancer (e.g. leukaemia) in the last five years, those who are having chemotherapy, those who are on immunosuppressant medications, and those who have had a bone marrow transplant in the last two years. 

Tick, tick, tick and tick! Not only am I the definition of "high risk" but I was unable to receive the COVID vaccine until at least 100 days after my transplant. 

I managed to get my first jab before and second jab just after QLD opened its borders to the southern states, but still, I am aware of the inherent risks I face should I catch this insidious disease.

With all the above in mind, what have I learnt as a young cancer patient during the pandemic? Firstly, I feel so appreciative to our population who, for the most part, have put their lives on hold over the last two years to protect our vulnerable populations – people just like me. 

I can’t even begin to imagine how much tougher my year would have been if I was also trying to dodge COVID at every turn... unable to receive care and support from friends and family from fear of getting sick. 

We always knew it couldn’t be forever (and despite my own vulnerabilities, even I know the importance of re-opening borders), but I am thankful that lockdowns and border closures have bought us valuable time to vaccinate our population to support those at highest risk.

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Secondly, I have learnt a lot about friends, family, acquaintances, and people generally. I have seen so much commentary during the pandemic about those dying having "underlying health conditions", or there "only being X number of people in ICU"; as if justifying deaths and hospital admissions puts the general populations' minds at ease.

What many forget, is that every death, every admission, is a real person. They are people like me who, at no fault of their own, have been dealt a tough hand and are just doing their best to make it through.

These people are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Yes, some are elderly (like that makes it any better, to be honest?), but many are just like you, the reader, people living ordinary healthy lives, until one day they weren’t.

Finally, this year I have learnt a lot about compassion. As a psychologist in my pre-cancer life, I like to think that I already had a fair degree of empathy; however, going through an experience like cancer (especially during a pandemic) has taken this to a new level for me. 

I have so much compassion towards every vulnerable person facing the same risks as me – we’re in the trenches together, but yes it still really sucks. For everyone who has faced COVID, who has been unwell, who has ended up in hospital, and to those who have died, I feel for you and am always thinking about you.

2020 and 2021 have been tough years for the whole world and we are all hoping for a much brighter 2022. As COVID continues to spread amongst our community and as we look optimistically towards a life "on the other side" of this pandemic, please don’t forget to stop sometimes to think about those of us who are still very much fighting the good fight.  

Melissa Booton is a school psychologist, wife and fur-mother with an interest in writing. Her world was shaken up this year after a cancer diagnosis, but she is happily in recovery and looking forward to a return to her "new normal" soon.

Feature Image: Getty.