Sunday, December 18, 2011
Saturday, December 10, 2011
I’ll go into the details of my diagnosis later, but first I want to bring people up to speed to what is happening now. I’ve reached the end of the London leg of my journey, and maybe I will look back at that part as the hardest, but most life-affirming bit of the whole experience. It’s hard to say yet, I know I’ve got a hard road ahead of me, but at least I know now what I have to do.
So, in a nutshell, chemo sucks. It’s like a really bad hangover, but without the really fun ‘night before’ part. But I am well-acquainted with hangovers so I guess I’m the best equipped I can be to deal with it all. After a bit of a rough week, I am now on Day 14 of my chemo and things are finally on the up. The last week has been full of: impromptu nana naps, nausea and vomit (including one very public roadside spew – shamefully not the first time this has happened in my life, haha), paracetamol-defying headaches and just a general weak, crap feeling. The extreme fatigue means I haven’t been able to do much (a nice excuse to get out of housework!), but this is rather frustrating for someone who is very independent and not used to doing so little. Living in a shoebox room in a London share house in the middle of winter hasn’t exactly made it easier. During my first days of sickness I was also an emotional wreck (I spent most of Thursday sobbing into my boyfriend Matt’s shoulder, “I’m going to miss you soooo much!”) as I think I simply wasn’t emotionally prepared for feeling so helpless. Everything just hit me so hard.
Blood tests on Monday showed I was neutropenic (sounds like a name for a band or album). This meant my neutrophils, the most important kind of white blood cell, were dangerously low, leaving me susceptible to infection. To ensure my white cell count is as high as it can be for my flight on Saturday, the doctor prescribed me a hormone that would give the cells an artificial boost throughout the week. It’s administered by injection but I didn’t fancy stabbing myself in the shoulder or abdomen, so I’ve left that to the professional, namely my brother Doctor Sam (who arrived here from Australia last Saturday). The injections have been working so I guess Sam passed that test!
But every cloud has its silver lining, and I’ve finally come to my reward. Yesterday I saw my London oncologist for what will be the last time. An X-ray revealed that the lump in my chest is now a smaller lump. The doc said he was ‘very happy with the response’. My blood tests showed my white cell count had jumped from 1.3 to 4.6 (go white cells go!) in three days. The doctor said he had no problem with me getting on that plane on Saturday, and seemed reassured by the fact I would be travelling with a doctor, even if he has only been a doctor for a week.
So I am coming home! Finally! It’s probably going to be the most horrible 24-hour flight of my life but it’s going to deliver me to the people that matter to me more than anything in the world. I’m at peace with leaving London; I feel I have unfinished business here and I know I will miss the place and the people in it, but it will always be there to go back to. It’s just so much more important to be around my family right now.
It’s Friday today and I’m feeling pretty good. Tonight is my last night in London, which will be spent with the many awesome people I’ve met here along the way. It’s six degrees today and will be five tomorrow, which makes it easier to leave … Australian summer, I'm ready!
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
(Written on Friday, November 25, 2011)
One minute you’re a healthy, 29-year-old girl, with your dreams and aspirations ahead of you, living a semi-normal life of working, partying, travelling, discovering things about yourself and others and exploring this wonderful world in a foreign city, ready to face the full brunt of your 30s. The next minute you’re being told you have a terminal illness growing inside you and your whole existence suddenly is thrown onto a rollercoaster of hospital beds, scans, tests, surgeries, needles, doctors, radiologists and life-changing diagnoses, and suddenly the future isn’t so crystal clear anymore.
It’s been two weeks today since I took myself to a public London hospital because I had some abdominal pain that wouldn’t go away. After two unsuccessful trips to my local GP, I decided that I wasn’t going to sit around and feel crap anymore. I walked out my front door, I took a bus, and another bus, filled out the form at North Middlesex Hospital A&E, and relayed all my symptoms to the nurses. Perhaps one of the smartest decisions I’ve made in my life. Never in a million years could I have foreseen the events that followed: an X-ray, a CT scan, the revelation of an abnormal growth in my chest, a probable diagnosis of cancer, and an admission to a hospital bed. But when I think what might have happened if I hadn’t have made that decision, and if the nurses and doctors hadn’t been so vigilant … well it’s not worth thinking about.
The last two weeks have been a crazy rollercoaster. I have had good days and bad days. I have cried, I have laughed, I’ve been lifted up, I’ve been knocked over like a pile of bricks, I have been amazed, inspired, touched, overwhelmed. Physically, I have been poked, prodded, cut open, jabbed, scanned, tested, pricked, injected and pushed by every medical instrument known to man. I have so many holes in me I feel like I’m going to start leaking like a sieve. But I think the most amazing thing about all this is the overwhelming support I have received – not only from my amazing family and friends in Australia, but all the people close to me here in London, who have helped me get through what has probably been the hardest time of my life. It is truly amazing that under the circumstances I actually feel so lucky more than anything, because knowing that you have such amazing and supportive people around you is everything. With all this love around me, there really isn’t much room to feel despair.
On top of this, I have been so amazed and inspired by the wonders of the medical industry –particularly the people working in it. I can’t for a minute fault the care I have received here in the UK – I feel so overwhelmed with gratitude the way every single doctor and nurse I have seen has bent over backwards to make sure I’m OK and get the best possible treatment, quickly. Yeah, it’s their job, but it’s also more than that. It’s my life. It’s an amazing feeling, like having your own personal army, formed by a group of strangers, who are standing over you saying ‘You’re 29, you’ve got something inside you that could kill you, and we’re not going to let that happen – not under our watch’. From the haematology consultants who first came to me in A&E, to the nurses and amazing surgeon at the National Heart Hospital, to the oncologist and lymphoma nurse and all the staff at UCLH – simply everyone has been so helpful to my mother and I and I just can’t be any more full of gratitude. Thanks to them, the healing process has already begun and I can’t ask for more than that.
The facts are this: I have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s diffuse B-cell lymphoma. Yes it is cancer, but it’s the ‘cancer you want if you ever get cancer’. It’s in my chest. It’s huge. It’s spread to other parts of my body (liver, lungs, kidneys and pancreas). But the prognosis is still good – right from the start doctors have told me it is very treatable, and have health and age on my side. I will have to undergo six months chemotherapy and maybe additional therapies if that doesn’t do the job. But I am confident, and so are the doctors. I am going to beat this.
Receiving this news and going through this in London has been difficult, especially being so far away from my immediate family. But remarkably, I have never felt alone. My amazing mother flew over right away to see me and I am so filled with gratitude – she might not realize it but I couldn’t have done this without her. To see her walk into my hospital room just hours after my biopsy, when I felt at my most alone and vulnerable, was perhaps the most overwhelming wave of love and gratitude I have ever felt (it never fails to make me cry). And my friends here have also rallied around me, and I will look at my last days in London with fondness. And while I haven’t really had much time to reply to everyone, I am so grateful for every single message of support that has come my way since this all happened – each one has given me strength.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, I’ve never really had that moment where I asked, “Why me?” I’ve been around long enough to see many people close to me fight (and not always win) their own cancer battles, and friends of friends, family of friends … I truly doubt there is a single person in this world who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way. How could I be so selfish to think this is only happening to me? No, life just deals its cards this way and you deal with it.
As of today, the chemotherapy drugs are now working their way through my system; I can feel them surging through my veins, launching ninja kicks at the lymphoma cells in my body. If all goes to plan with the chemo, and there are no complications, I should be hopping onto a plane to Australia two weeks from now. It’s going to be a long two weeks but not a day passes without me imagining my arrival at Melbourne Airport, seeing my wonderful family at the terminal, and going outside to feel the Australian sun on my face. Getting home is my first immediate hurdle, and I know there will be many more to come. One step at a time.
I am going to blog my experience here, not because I want sympathy or sadness – but because I want people to look at the positives of this. I never expected cancer to show up in my life, especially not now, but being confronted with it makes me realize that it is a reality that many, many people deal with - and it doesn’t need to be hidden, or swept under the carpet, or avoided like a taboo subject. Yeah it sucks, but it's real, and all I can do right now is tackle it head-on.