Cancer never strikes at a convenient time. But then again, is there ever a convenient time for cancer? For me, it struck in the prime of my life when I was 25 years old and happily travelling Canada. I was 14 months into a two year working holiday in The Great White North, snowboarding in the Rocky Mountains and living in the 1980’s RV I bought with a couple of travelling mates. I found the lump near my right collarbone and had tests done on the lump in May of 2015. The tests came back as negative (the biopsy was done incorrectly) and it wasn't until I pushed to have further tests done after the lump started to change, that I was given the news that things may be more serious. By this time it was November and I was given 50/50 odds that the lump was cancer so I returned home to Australia for further tests and to spend Christmas with my family.
Life changed dramatically pretty quickly once I arrived back in Australia. I saw my doctor within an hour of getting off the plane, saw a specialist 2 days later, had diagnostic surgery the next day and received my diagnosis the day after on Christmas Eve Merry Christmas, to me! I was diagnosed with Nodular Sclerosing Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Stage 2A with 7 tumours of size up to 7cm... and just like that, I became a cancer patient.
It sounds so cliché to say that you think it will never happen to you, but it’s true.
I am a Registered Nurse, so it’s not as if I hadn't been exposed to people that are ill before, it just wasn’t part of MY life plan.
I didn’t cry when I was diagnosed, I didn’t even tell my family for almost a week. I was so worried about how my mum would take the news that I didn’t think too much about how my life was going to change. Over the next 6 months I managed to get through treatment with a great amount of support from those in my life. Of course there were hard times and the occasional breakdown, but I think I did a good job of wearing a smile and cracking a joke as much as possible. I even happily adopted the nickname ‘Baldy’ in good spirit. I have always considered myself to be a strong and stubborn individual, so I expected that once I made it though my 6 months of Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy that the hard work would be done and dusted.
I was wrong. Treatment was only the start.
Never did I expect that I would suffer from all of these ‘possible’ side effects that everyone tells you about, such as anxiety, memory problems, concentration problems, muscle weakness, heart palpitations, skin sensitivity, extreme fatigue, irregular periods, hot flashes (Thanks Zolodex!), mood swings, and the list goes on. There has not been a day that has gone by since my diagnosis that I have been able to not think about cancer in one way or another. The physical and emotional side effects of cancer are long lasting, sometimes unexpected and almost always unwelcome!
I walked out of hospital after my last day of treatment feeling relieved, excited, proud...but also exhausted, completely confused and lost. I was a completely different person than the Lauren that nervously sat in the waiting room back in December the year before. It’s a combination of losing parts of yourself and gaining new ones at the same time, as if someone took you to pieces and put you back together in a completely different order.
I had previously defined myself by my profession as a nurse or by ‘the travelling Aussie’. I felt now that the only way to describe me was the girl who had cancer. I had no job, I was not travelling, no hair and no idea what I was going to do next. Without noticing it, I started to spiral into a negative place where my life was run by OCD behaviours, compulsions and anxiety that I couldn’t explain. All of this definitely wasn’t part of ‘the plan’.
There are other daily reminders of cancer that can be difficult for other to people to understand, such as losing my confidence to drive after realising that it takes more brainpower than I have sometimes. It’s common for my brain to go on vacation, which has led me to some near misses so I now only drive if completely necessary. I also deal with feeling defeated when I need to remove myself from whatever I am doing to have a quick (or not so quick) power nap. Naps are great as a luxury when you have one by choice on a lazy day, not when they are a necessary part of daily life that take you away from important or enjoyable activities. I find my brain often gets tired before my body does, when this happens I cannot answer questions thrown at me by others, I struggle to hold a conversation and the only way to fix it is to remove myself from all stimulation and lie down for a while. I struggle to learn new things a lot more than I used to, which has made trying to learn Spanish, sign language and guitar a difficult and sometimes frustrating experience, but I am determined!
The side effect that has impacted me the most has been anxiety. Anxiety about cancer coming back
, infertility, other side effects, my friend’s health, the decisions I am making in life, the products I am putting on my skin, (do they cause cancer?) getting a different type of cancer, making the most out of life.The list goes on. You see what I mean?
I had put off seeking help because I thought I wasn’t going to let it all get to me, but eventually I decided to make an appointment with a psychologist that specialised in Young Adults with cancer. Over the next few months I learned a lot about why I was experiencing these emotions and some mechanisms to get me back on track again. I was also lucky enough to have access to programs
at the You Can Centre in Peter Mac Hospital, Melbourne
, such as Re-Activate, an exercise based program for young cancer survivors and Upskill, a program based on getting us back to work and study. It helped a lot to have other people around my age that have also gone through a cancer diagnosis. It helps to actually meet other people battling the same issues.
Cancer has a funny way of bonding people together, even if they have nothing else in common.
I have met a great group of other young cancer survivors that I now call my dear friends. It's been a long road, but life is slowly returning to a ‘new normal’ (a phrase I heard many times from my medical team and I have decided to adopt in a positive way). I can even say now that my life is better in many ways because of what I have been through. I heard a great saying “It’s not in the way, it’s on the way”.
Cancer has been part of my journey and I am embracing the new direction in life
(between minor anxiety attacks), I have returned to travelling, am looking into new career paths such as midwifery and I have been given opportunities to help other young people with cancer through my work with The Sony Foundation, attendance of River 4 ward, a charity event raising money for YouCan centres around Australia, I volunteer on the Victorian and Tasmanian Youth Cancer Consulting Board, my story was featured at The Sony Foundation Gaming 4 Life event, I presented the Peter Mac Cup AFL trophy to Carlton with my friend and fellow You Can Connect guest blogger Breeanne Shaw and have interviewed by ABC News and The Herald Sun. I was also recently in New York and was lucky enough to be able to visit the IHadCancer.com office and hang out with Emily and the Gang there for the afternoon.
I now look forward to where this crazy ride will take me next.