Your life is your story. Write well. Edit Often.
In September 2010 I started back at uni ready to smash my 4th and final Honours year at the University of Glasgow. It kicked off the same as the years usually did, with lots of nights out, visits to The Arches and jugs of Vodka Red Bull…
The fun however was to be cut short a few weeks into term when, after a spate of infections, breathlessness and flu like symptoms, I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (alongside a rather nasty dose of pneumonia). It was a Wednesday, and by Friday I had been moved to the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre in Glasgow to start treatment the following Monday.
Overnight, I went from trying to pick a dissertation topic at University to being told there was a very real possibility I could die. Funnily enough, that turns your world upside down!
I remember in those first few hours of being told why I was so unwell and the treatment I would have to endure one thing rang loud in my 20 year old head – Would this mean I won’t be able to have a family? At 20 this was not something high on my agenda. Robin and I had barely been together 9 months and that relationship had been long distance as I studied in Glasgow and he was training on the South coast, but still, I knew it was something that I wanted in the future and the thought of having that choice taken away from me was such a shock. My chemotherapy was scheduled to start 5 days after my diagnosis so having eggs frozen was not an option, I didn’t have that long, my blood was useless and even a minor infection could have been fatal.
For the first few days I allowed myself to panic, to cry, to be sad, to be scared. For the hypothetical kids I may have one day had, the final year of university that I was missing and at the even darker points – the life I might lose. Then I started fresh – there was work to be done!
As someone who had never spent even a night in hospital, or had blood taken, or any real medical procedure this was all very alien to me. Being poked and prodded to within an inch of my life before having a Hickman Line fitted (a central line inserted near your collarbone and threaded into a large vein above your heart under local anesthetic). I wrote down questions, I made notes of the answers, I read every piece of literature I had and I equipped myself with as much knowledge as possible as my first round of Chemo commenced… This was followed by one of the greater milestones in a ‘cancer journey’ (eye-roll at the use of using the word journey) – the hair loss. I prepared by cutting my hair short and then when the clumps started to block the drain of my hospital room en suite I took the plunge and got it shaved off by one of my many lovely nurses. It was done and dusted and no where near as bad or emotional as I had expected. Looking back, I think I was quite shy about my wee bald noggin. I wish that I had more pictures + documented it. I may have had one or two, but due to new laptops, new phones and the lack of the wonderful Cloud… I have no idea where/if they exist. If I had them now I would flaunt them proudly because they would be a reminder of a strength in my character that I didn’t know was there.
As a permanent in-patient basically living on a Teenage Cancer Trust ward (they’re amazing by the way – if you ever see them fundraising and have a spare quid – chuck it in the bucket) there was ample opportunity to mope, but early on I realised that that wasn’t an option for me. Kinda like when you have a bad hangover and you feel 100 times better after a shower, I tried to keep my days as normal as I could by getting up and ready and slapping some makeup on. I would say I tried to keep active, but by that I just mean I didn’t lie in bed, instead I would watch endless episodes of 24 (to this day, that boxset is one of the best gifts Robin has ever bought me) in the TCT lounge. I actively worked to maintain a positive attitude and developed ways of coping, while focusing on the present – all of which, I’ve since found out are related to Mindfulness (I didn’t realise at the time it was a ‘thing’).
Each of my 4 rounds of chemo wiped out my immune system entirely and I was susceptible to anything and everything (Cue the time they thought I had chicken pox and was put into isolation on an infectious diseases ward – spoiler alert, it was just a spot. Or the time I had swine flu. Oh, or that time I got sepsis…) But with each I felt positive that I would achieve and maintain remission. My friends were such a massive support and visited all the time, this was a stark contrast to a young girl that I shared a room with toward the end of my treatment, and it definitely made me realise how lucky I was. Not to mention Robin, who was there every step of th way to watch ’24’ with me!
And finally, after –
- 6 Months
- 184 Nights (probably at least 170 of those actually in hospital)
- 4 Rounds of Chemotherapy
- 1 Drug Trial
- 4 Wigs
- 10 Bone Marrow Extractions
- 2 Hickman lines
- 70+ Units of A- Blood (I did try to keep track… until I lost count)
- Countless Units of Platelets
- 3 ‘Roommates’
- 1 Christmas
- 1 Birthday (my 21st)
- 8 Seasons of ’24’
… I was released back into my natural habitat. I had a new confidence in myself and my capabilities and realised, as cliché as it sounds, that life really is too short. Sure, it would have been cool to not have had to go through 8 months of grueling treatment to find that out, but nevertheless, it changed me in so many ways. I am also glad that it happened when it did. It happened at a time when I had no responsibilities or financial obligations. I could focus entirely on myself and getting better. I would like to think if it had happened at any other time there would have been the same outcome, but I don’t know for sure. The thought of going through it again now terrifies me.
The strength that I gained from the experience I used once again when I became a Mum. On the days when I struggle to find any self-love and nothing seems to be going right (and there have been many) I remember how much my body has been battered before managing to create and grow a little human and the positive attitude that had got me through it mentally. All 3 chemotherapy drugs I was given carried “moderate to high risk of infertility” so I know we are very lucky to have Oscar. I hope we will be as lucky again, but who knows. For now I’ll just be thankful I’m here…