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'I'm 25 and I've been diagnosed with cancer twice. These are the 5 things I've learnt.'

It’s been one year since I’ve heard those dreaded words: ‘Natalie, your cancer has come back. It’s in your lungs, meaning you have Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma’.

I’ve been told those words twice, can you believe? Twice. Once, for the first time four years ago in October 2014 which was Stage III. And on this day, 365 days ago, in May 2018.

A lot has happened in the space of a year. My tumours grew from ‘normal’ to ‘aggressive’ to ‘scar tissue’. My liver got hepatitis, my lung collapsed. I threw up every morning for six weeks. I lost seven kilograms in the space of a month. The love of my life packed up his life in Germany and moved to Sydney.

I’ve cried more times than I can count, but I’ve also fist pumped the air many times too. I’ve had 38 eggs frozen thanks to IVF. I’ve lost friends, but gained some too. I’ve had over one hundred needles pierce my skin and roughly 32 cannulas inserted into my right arm for immunotherapy and guess what? I’m still here.

When I was first diagnosed back in 2014, I would often refer to my life as the ‘before’ and the ‘after’. Having the cancer come back; that line of definition, that signpost that allowed me to separate what I had established as known and unknown, is now so blurry I couldn’t tell you if it was really there. Because now, there’s an ‘after, after Natalie’. A woman who has been shaken to her core and has had to undo many of self-sewn stitches on parts of herself she thought she had worked through, and could therefore close.

 

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Giggles a plenty & dishing the tea ????????☕️

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I’ve never been one to say I can understand others pain. Pain is unique to every beating heart on this earth, but boy, do I understand how Sisyphus felt being eternally damned to carry that rock on his back. That’s how I feel sometimes. My life repeating itself, with no concrete set of direction yet instead there’s heavy cocktail of loss, grief, anger and frustration forever stuck to my shoulders.

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If you were to ask me to recount the months of May, June and July of 2018; I couldn’t do it. Looking back, those three months were a chaotic blur. I couldn’t tell you the dates I lived at the hospital for two weeks, nor when my team of doctors said the cancer may have travelled to my breasts. I couldn’t count how many times I swallowed pills out of those tiny plastic cups, or how many days I spent asleep. And yet at the time, each day felt like a never ending hot summer afternoon in outback Australia, sitting on the porch, waiting for the rain clouds to come.

For the past year, and for a few years to come, I feel like I have been swallowed by a black hole and spat out into another universe. A universe I was somewhat familiar with, but thought I would never have to have my passport stamped again to allow re-entry.

Once again, I became bilingual in science. A whole new world of vocabulary was thrust upon me and I had to find out what it all meant. Once again, I had to learn what it meant to be gravely sick, but not ‘feel’ sick. To the untrained eye I look normal, healthy even. I laugh the laugh I inherited from my mother, which is incredibly loud and over takes my whole body. I banter with my father and brother to a degree that is probably un-lady like, but I love it. I found true love – something I never thought I would find. I spend my time in art galleries and bookstores. I do the things I love, and yet it’s tainted. All of it.

 

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In the name of cancer, my newfound relationship was tested to the fullest extent. I was ready to sacrifice the love I had found in favour of cancer because I couldn’t bear to put my partner through such a terrifying and draining ordeal.

In the name of cancer, I watched the members of family morph into different people.

In the name of cancer, my body did not belong to me.

In the name of cancer, people I thought were my friends didn’t message to ask how I was doing.

In the name of cancer, my identity took another swift, brutal blow. The layers of the person I thought I was didn’t stand a chance and fell away like autumn leaves.

And yet there I stood, a skeleton of confusion, anger and betrayal looking at a horizon that will forever include medicine. That will always include a label of ‘sick’. How does a young girl who has a fierce ambition to emblazon herself on the world and leave her mark, survive, yet again?

There are five things I’ve learnt over the course of this year, and I’d like to share them for the people out there who also feel like Sisyphus.

  1. ‘Healing’ can mean whatever you want it to mean. It can mean eating four bagels in one sitting because I finally felt hungry, or it can mean walking around the supermarket with my hand gripped tightly by the love of my life. Healing is strange, unique and often surprising. It doesn’t stop because one day you wake up and feel ‘whole’. Healing are those footprints walking beside you.
  2. There is a profound power in the mind. If you learn how to talk to it, embrace it, challenge and listen to it, it will guide you more than you could ever know.
  3. I will carry with me for the rest of my life a sense of loss. Twice, I have come face-to-face with such invasive trauma, all before I was 25. I know Loss and Grief like two old friends. There are days that I succumb to that feeling, and there are days where I forget about my past. I’ve learnt to accept that they will forever be trailing behind me as I grow as a person, and that is okay.
  4. I have a newfound amazement for my body and all that it is doing fighting cancer. I often have days where I don’t like the way I ‘look’ yet I’m learning to overcome that and be genuinely amazed by what my body can DO.
  5. Being put in such an utterly vulnerable position has truly shown me what the meaning of love is and that is a lesson I’m grateful for.

All those things have happened to me and my body, yet what have I become? Who is Natalie Fornasier, one year on?

One year on, I’ve become more. There has always been this simmering feeling slowly rising inside of me. Every day, it gets stronger and only recently have I realised that it’s my soul, telling me that I’m more than my disease. I often thought of my cancer as the life source of my creativity, of my wisdom. But over the course of this year, I have come to learn that it is me, my soul, that is that source. I have always been here. Yes, I had cultivated an identity over time, only for it to be taken away not once, but twice. Yet it is thanks to cancer that I have uncovered the identity I’ve always, truly had. I’m not one to romanticise pain, but there should be a time where you can thank it. Ironically, I will forever be in debt to the ‘C’ word, both psychically and psychologically.

A year on I’m more than a word that has ripped my identity from me and forced me to rebuild everything that I’ve learnt and re-learnt in the 25 years I’ve been on this planet. In the past year, I have become a woman who has dedicated a large portion of her life to educating others with a Not-For-Profit called Call Time On Melanoma. I’m more grateful for every breathe my lungs inhale than I have ever been. I am more expressive, more loving. I am stronger. I am hungry for a future that is rightfully mine because I bloody well deserve it. I still have cancer, but if it wasn’t for the challenges I endured, I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today. A year ago, I truly didn’t know if I would be here, waving a ‘One Year’ flag. I didn’t know if I would have life in me, or if I would be a body in the ground.

And yet, a year on, I am living and I am more.

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