health

'I was preparing for another day at work at Mamamia. Then a doctor's appointment changed my life.'

Eds note: In 2017, 31-year-old Briony Benjamin was the Head of Video at Mamamia. She was fit and healthy, playing touch footy and squash twice a week, and was one of those sparkly people you always feel better for being around. But she'd been feeling crappy for months on end and couldn't explain why. This is the story of the moment she found out what was wrong, from her brand new book, Life is Tough (But So Are You). 

THURSDAY (very busy) to-do list

› Medical appointment 9am
› Uber to office
› Facebook Live with Bachelorette Sophie Monk
› Check set-up: audio & 2 cameras
› Complete video presentation
› Groceries on way home

I found myself sitting in the waiting room at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney one very normal Thursday morning to get yet another set of test results.

Side note: Watch Briony's viral video - you only get one life. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

After a year of feeling really crappy, my parents insisted I go to a haematologist (a blood specialist) to get another opinion. 

I thought it was overkill, but I agreed. The specialist ordered some scans, more blood tests and a biopsy, and I didn’t really think too much about it. Surely if the news was bad, they’d call straight away?

A week later I was there to get the results, expecting another dead end. 

Mum had insisted on flying down from Queensland and coming to the appointment with me, despite my protests. 

I was just going to race straight to work afterwards, I was too busy to hang out and had a jam-packed day. I figured it was a waste of a trip for her.

As I sat there with Mum waiting for my number to be called, I scrolled through work emails and planned the day ahead. 

I wondered how bad the traffic would be and how late I’d get into the office. 

My ticket number flicked up on the screen, so I put my phone away and Mum and I made our way down the corridor where we met Dr Annmarie Bosco. 

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She greeted us warmly at the door of her brightly lit, white-walled office and welcomed us to take a seat.

Gently she said, ‘So we need to discuss the results of the biopsy, it does show the Hodgkin’s lymphoma your parents were concerned about. I’m so sorry.’

I took a sharp breath in, not yet comprehending what this meant. She explained that it was a type of cancer of the lymph glands, part of the body’s immune system.

Cancer? What?

She gave me a moment to process the shock. Mum reached for my hand and held it tightly as we looked at each other in disbelief.

‘You’ll need to start treatment as soon as possible, so we will need you to clear your next three to six months. And, yes, it can be cured.’

To gauge how bad it was, I could only think of one question:

‘Will I lose my hair?’

‘Yes,’ she said kindly, ‘but it will grow back.’

My initial thoughts went something like this:

  • WTF?????????
  • Clearly there has been a mistake!
  • How can this be happening?
  • But I’m so young? 
  • My hair...
  • OMG I’m going to be bald...
  • What if I have a weird-shaped head?
  • There has definitely been a stuff-up.
  • How am I going to tell my sisters?
  • This is a pretty good excuse for being late to work.
  • How am I going to tell my boyfriend?
  • Perhaps they switched my results with someone else
  • No wonder my squash game has gotten so bad.
  • My hair, my beautiful hair: this can’t be real.
  • How am I going to tell my friends?
  • Is this a prank?
  • Can I start today over?
  • FAAAAAAAARRRRRRKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!

The rest of that consultation is a blur. I was so grateful that Mum had ignored me and come to the appointment (let’s call it mother’s intuition). 

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She held my hand tight, we called Dad and put him on speakerphone and Dr Bosco gently talked us through the immediate next steps. 

More tests. Blah blah blah... IVF... Blah blah blah... I took out a pen and pad to take notes, but my mind was already somewhere else. EverythIng slowed down and a calm numbness came over me.

As I left the consultation, I looked down at my notepad. The only thing I’d written down was, ‘don’t get pregnant’. Helpful.

Nothing else that had seemed important that day mattered anymore. 

I held Mum’s hand as we walked out of the hospital into the warm sunshiny Sydney day, where surprisingly the world hadn’t stopped. Frantic people rushed by, disposable coffee cups in hand, glued to their phones; cars honked, their stressed drivers racing around doing their busy and important things. 

Didn’t they know none of it mattered?

In a daze, Mum and I walked to a pharmacy on a bizarre expedition to buy pregnancy vitamins (more on this later). 

I took out my phone, but this time it was to call all the people who were most important to me, one by one. Stuff racing off to work, we decided instead to go and have lunch by the sea, sit in the sunshine and watch the waves roll in. None of these things had been on my to-do list that morning. Hello curveball.

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Sometimes the universe will throw you a giant surprise party... and, like most surprise parties, it’s generally f**king awful.

Things that mattered instantly

  • Connecting with my favourite people on Earth
  • How many days I had left on this planet
  • Doing something important with that time

Things that instantly didn’t matter anymore

  • The 782 unread emails in my inbox
  • My asymmetrical eyebrows (ladies’ eyebrows are sisters, not twins)
  • Being late to work
  • My freckled white skin
  • A presentation I had to give for work next week
  • The aggro guy who road-raged at me this morning
  • Getting fired from that job I didn’t even really like...
  • What car I drove
  • Missing out on the Year 12 drama award (nah, who am I kidding? That still cuts deep)
  • My outfit for next week’s party, to which I wouldn’t be going anyway...
  • Who won The Bachelorette

Day by day, step by step, breath by breath

The one piece of advice I do remember clearly from my specialist after she’d delivered the news that I had cancer was not to get too far ahead of myself. 

Dr Bosco suggested that I shouldn’t google Hodgkin’s lymphoma or worry too much about treatment just yet. Instead, we were just going to focus on the next few things we had to do. 

That was really excellent advice.

Image: Supplied.  She gave me a piece of paper with the next steps written on it.

› blood tests
› heart & lung capacity tests
› appointment at the IVF clinic

In those first few days, as the enormity of what lay in front of me hit me in waves, I kept coming back to that. What are the next three steps?

It’s a great way to approach anything in life. You don’t have to solve everything right now, particularly when you are in crisis; you don’t need to know where this will all lead. Things will unfold.

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I use this all the time now, if I feel overwhelmed or stressed or anxious. What are the next few steps? Just focus on those.

Text from Life is Tough (But So Are You) by Briony Benjamin. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99.

Image: Supplied. 

Feature Image: Supplied.

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