How I found strength after being diagnosed with cancer

Dealing with cancer in her twenties was a massive shock for The Mix’s Senior Content Manager Olivia. But through the trauma, she’s discovered unlikely gifts and a new strength.

The Mix Staff
olivia and her friend pull silly faces with sick bowls on their heads

Olivia, left, has a newfound appreciation of life... and sick bowls.

There’s nothing quite like being told you have cancer in your twenties. I am 27 years old and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma five months ago. I have slowly been getting to grips with that shocker but the apparent injustice takes a while to settle in. To any other young people facing similar diagnoses, I promise there are good days, enlightening times and even funny moments to come.

Taking control

In the beginning I wanted as little to do with my diagnosis as possible. I didn’t want to know what stage cancer I had, I didn’t want to hear the survival statistics and I left any decision making down to my family.

But as time went on and the initial shock wore off, this changed – I suddenly wanted to know everything about my cancer and my treatment. I think it depends on the individual but I found that by educating myself, I felt more in control. Not only do I surely deserve an A-level in cancer by now, it also means I can question my consultant’s decisions, weigh up the risks of certain treatments and seek second opinions where I see necessary.

Protecting my personhood

Hospitals have a knack of robbing your personhood. They dress you in those silly gowns with the gaping backs and like to push you around in wheelchairs at any opportunity. On the morning of my biopsy I sat sobbing in the hospital changing room, partly out of disbelief at my situation and partly due to the gown I had to wear. I just didn’t feel like myself.

But back home I didn’t look or feel like myself either. I felt sad and desperate and my way of dealing with that was by wearing a pretty desperate outfit – grey trackies and a poo coloured jumper became my go-to comfy clothes. It was only after a tearful intervention from my Mum, that I realised I was looking more and more like a sick person and less and less like me.

After a good three weeks in that outfit, I decided to up my hospital garb. I treated myself to some sparkly shoes, colourful clothes and a few other bits that made me feel brighter. Now when I go into hospital for chemo I dress up for the occasion – I don my sparkly shoes and do up my thinning hair because it makes me feel more like me and less like a patient number.

Losing your hair can be traumatic

When I first imagined losing my hair I managed to stay fairly calm about it by seeing it as part of the cancer ‘experience’. But then I thought about how fucking weird I was going to look without eyebrows and quickly changed my mind. It depends on the kind of chemotherapy you’re on, but for me it’s coming out slowly, leaving little hair fairies on my pillow and blocking up my shower. I’m slowly getting used to this – mainly by imagining the chemotherapy being just as unforgiving on the cancer as it is on my poor eyebrows.

I’ve even had some unexpected laughs from my not-so-funny hair loss. Last week for example I had to ring the beauticians where I’d been going for laser hair removal prior to my diagnosis. I had to explain that I would no longer be requiring their services because I no longer had any leg hair to remove. I guess it’s sad really but the ridiculousness of telling the woman that I’d get in touch once I had hair again really made me laugh.   

I try to be kind to myself

When I was first diagnosed, I ambitiously thought I’d use this ‘down time’ to learn the piano, start a blog and probably make a patchwork quilt, all while working part-time. Anyway that was the plan before I started chemo and realised how completely crap it makes you feel. My new goals include ‘go on a short walk every day’, ‘talk to a friend on the phone’, ‘write an article for The Mix’. But while it’s nice to have goals and creative things to occupy my time, I don’t beat myself up when I don’t manage any of those things.

Another way I try to support my emotional well-being is through counselling. Most NHS hospitals will offer counselling services and many cancer charities offer the same. I’ve found this hugely helpful in terms of remaining positive and looking forward. It’s also a good opportunity to voice things I may not feel comfortable talking to my friends and family about.

I am so grateful for the support I have

I have been so overwhelmed by the support I’ve had from family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbours and strangers. A word of advice to anyone who knows anyone going through something similar – make the effort to get in touch because it really does make a difference. Every time a friend tells me of the trip we’re going to do to Ibiza once I’m better, every time someone sends me a book in the post and every time anyone tells me “it’s all going to be alright”, it gives me such a lift. I don’t always feel up to phone calls and I can’t manage many visits because I tire easily but each and every kind message lifts me up, crowd-surfing me out of this horribleness.

Some of the most meaningful support I’ve had has come from other cancer patients. To anyone else facing a cancer diagnosis, I recommend joining support groups and seeking out the friendly faces on your chemo ward. I’ve met some incredible people. We’re all different ages and have different blood cancers but we sit together, varying degrees of bald, hooked up to our drugs, sharing stories and offering advice. As my new friend Ben put it – “it’s amazing how our lives intersect here at this dark point in our lives, like we’re sheltering from a brief storm, waiting for the clouds to break and the sunshine to beckon us out into the world anew.”

Facing mortality can be a good thing

I had a major wobble at Sunday lunch the other day, simply because I was having such a nice time. “What if I don’t get through this and I don’t get to have any more Sunday lunches with my lovely family?” I thought. How did I never realise how nice this all is? Facing death at a young age is terrifying but it also seems to have opened my eyes to more of the world’s little lovelies and for that I am grateful.

Clarity is one of the few gifts that cancer grants us – it reminds us of what is important in our lives, allowing us to prioritise these things going forward. So my plan for now is to listen to the kind messages I’ve read time and time again in get-well-soon cards – I’ll try to be positive, I’ll try to look forward and I will plan for the future because I know it’s possible to have a happier, healthier life post-cancer than what I had before.




Published on 03-Oct-2017