health

"If it wasn't for a gym visit, I don't know if I'd be here." How I found out I had cancer at 19.

In early 2014, I started to take notice of a sharp stabbing pain in my left arm that came on every time I drank alcohol. Initially, I didn’t think much of this strange phenomenon.

I drank so little that every time a new occasion would come around, I’d have already mostly forgotten that it happened.

At every party, I would have half a drink, feel the pain come on, sit with a dead arm for half an hour, defend this ‘phantom pain’ to suspicious friends and wait for it to go away. And after a very brief mention to a random doctor at an appointment for another ailment, I stopped thinking much of it.

Many months later (October to be specific), I started to notice that I was becoming increasingly fatigued; I’d come home from work exhausted, have a nap, wake up for dinner and go to bed shortly afterwards. I’d started my first full time job as a Legal Assistant a few months prior, so I concluded that everyone was right and adult life is truly miserable.

Late October came around and the exhaustion was only getting worse. So I decided that I could no longer juggle full-time work and a gym membership. In an attempt to make myself feel like less-of-a slob for cancelling, I decided to go for one last session on the night I would opt out of the contract.

I went as hard as I could and felt fine; yet on the way home whilst playing with my necklace I noticed a small lump on my chest that hadn’t been there before I’d gone to the gym. It progressively got bigger over the next few days and I began to present with the main symptoms of a torn chest muscle; I could barely move my arm and I had this persistent pain in my chest.

Kate Jenkins
Kate noticed a lump on her chest. Image: Supplied.

I went to a doctor and was sent to get an ultrasound (which was fairly inconclusive). So I got given some anti-inflammatories, told that it was most likely a torn chest muscle and to come back if it didn’t improve.

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I felt like a bit of a bad-ass for tearing my chest muscle.

I later found out that it takes a lot more than two 5kg dumb bells to tear a chest muscle but not until much later.

In early January 2015, after again hurting my chest whilst mucking around with my boyfriend – (not that kind of mucking around, you sicko) – I decided to go for a visit to my normal GP. He immediately suggested I get an MRI to see what was really going on. And I still vividly remember the day I was told I had cancer.

I left work early, driving two hours straight to Ballarat for the MRI. The technician put a cannula in my arm and told me it wouldn’t take more than half an hour to finish the scan.

I should’ve been suspicious when the Coldplay album I’d chosen to listen to finished rolling through. The tracks on that album add up to about an hour.

I should’ve been suspicious when they pulled me out, injected more fluid, and sent me back in for another 20 minutes.

I should’ve been suspicious when the technician very adamantly told me to book a follow-up appointment with my doctor.

But I wasn’t. Because most 19 year olds don’t get cancer. And frankly, I was just excited about going home for my afternoon nap.

Mia Freedman speaks to Emma Betts about what it was like to be diagnosed with cancer at 22 years old on the No Filter podcast. Post continues after podcast. 

I got home and 30 minutes later my doctor called and said, “we’ve found some abnormalities on your scan so I need you to come in at about 5pm to discuss it”. A small part of me thought I might be pregnant. I wish it had been that.

An hour later, I was sitting in the medical centre with my Dad, watching my doctor’s other patients role in and out, desperately trying to make eye contact with him to get some indication of what was coming. When we eventually went in, it all happened very quickly.

I was given a report that told me there was a large tumour taking up a decent portion of my chest. They didn’t know what type it was, but it was cancer and once they finished some more tests, I’d have to start treatment.

Twelve doses of chemotherapy and four weeks of radiotherapy later, I was in remission and I still am today. And if it wasn’t for that gym visit, I don’t know if I’d be here.

Kate is a 24-year-old Project Officer living in West Melbourne. She loves films, books and pasta. She's also a cancer survivor living with epilepsy. 

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