When you’re 14 years old, you don’t expect anything really bad to happen to you. As long as you have friends to laugh with, family to support you, and a good hair day every now and then, life is pretty much as it should be.
So the nagging cough that I just couldn’t shake and the constant exhaustion I felt even before I got out of bed didn’t really worry me. It was just part of my daily routine. It didn’t bother me that by the time I walked home from school, I was so weak I could hardly stand. If my head hurt, or my body ached, it was just part of growing up.
Then I felt a lump in my neck. Not big and not painful, but it was there. It moved around like a piece of jelly stuck under my skin. I thought this lump didn’t mean anything, so I ignored it.
Then came the day my life changed forever. It’s the day many will remember as the day Elvis Presley died. I will always remember it as the day I found out I had cancer.
While the world was busy mourning the “King,” I was being rushed to the Royal Children’s Hospital for tests. Initial blood results had indicated anemia, but things became more serious when I showed the doctor the lump on my neck. This painless, little lump that I thought was nothing suddenly meant everything.
I was a little scared at this point, but I really thought everything would be fine. I had never been sick in my life, except for chicken pox in grade 1. I just wanted to get my vitamins or medicine, whatever was needed, and get back home.
However, later that afternoon I was given the news that the hospital would be my home for the next few weeks. The truth was that I had acute lymphocytic leukemia, and I was scheduled to begin a 9-week intense chemotherapy and radiotherapy program to try and get me into remission. At first, I felt numb with shock, like I was floating above myself. I really didn’t understand; I was confused and afraid. The only thing I knew for certain was that leukemia was very serious, and my life from this point on would be filled with pain and uncertainty. I spent that first night in my hospital bed crying, scared, and feeling very alone.
I began chemotherapy the very next day and, almost immediately, so did the side effects. While the constant pain and vomiting were distressing enough, I had to come to terms with the fact I was going to lose my hair. I kept thinking of school, my end-of-semester party, and the boy I had a crush on. That was all gone. I was shattered. Not only did I have to face the battle of my life, constant pain, and awful side effects, but I’d have to do it all looking like an egg.
Those early days in the hospital were the hardest. I didn’t want to see anyone; I was either too sick or too embarrassed about the way I looked. My parents were on a rollercoaster of emotions. My mother threw herself into cooking as Greek women do to cope with fear and anxiety. She thought she could “feed” me back to health with a diet of iron-rich foods. My father had his own way of coping. He went out in search of nontraditional remedies, brought me green gooey health drinks that he had purchased from the Hare Krishnas. They only made me feel worse and ended up in the kidney dish.
I was taking over 30 tablets a day; they tasted like fly spray. Radiotherapy to my head, and lumbar punctures to my spine gave me constant headaches. One of the chemotherapy drugs also damaged the nerves in my legs so I couldn’t lift my foot. I walked like a duck. This was called “foot drop,” and I would spend 6 months wearing specially made splints and doing physiotherapy to reverse this condition.
All the blood tests were bad enough, but nothing compared to the bone marrow. I still get chills when I think about this procedure. I remember when I first saw the needle they were going to use to extract the bone marrow; it looked like something used to thread meat for a kebab. The thought that they were going to poke that into me was terrifying. The doctor did his best to keep me calm, but to me he was Dr. Frankenstein, and I was something he was carving up for dinner. The procedure was painful, I won’t lie, but it was the most important test in determining how my treatment was going.
The chemotherapy continued; side effects were never-ending. Aches and pains all over my body, my head constantly in the kidney dish. Then I had an allergic reaction to one of the drugs, and my body swelled up like a balloon. I couldn’t breathe, and it was the closest I came to dying. I could have given up then, but it made me more determined than ever. “Damn you cancer,” I thought to myself. I’m not going to let you win, I have too much to live for!
When we received the news that I had gone into remission, my family exploded into tears of joy. My parents thought it was a miracle, and my little brother, who hadn’t smiled since I was diagnosed, hugged me so hard I thought I was going to pass out. Finally, after months of pain and despair, I was ready to put this whole experience behind me.
For the next year, I visited the doctors, and each time the results were great. My hair had grown back, and I completed my Higher School Certificate. Unfortunately, a constant pain that had developed in my lower back proved to be a lymphoma, and by the end of the year I was back in the hospital, going though chemotherapy and radiotherapy once again.
I wasn’t as frightened this time though. Well, not as much. I had already gone through a battle, so now I was prepared with armor to face this next round. On Christmas Eve, I had surgery to remove the cancerous tissue in my back. The first few weeks were hard as I had to learn to walk again, but the treatment didn’t make me as sick this time round. For the next few months, I continued my chemotherapy and radiotherapy to my back.
The doctors were wonderful. They remained positive but never hid the truth from me. They told me the nerves in my legs would never recover totally, and I would always have some weakness there. That didn’t bother me as much as when I was told I could never have children. The radiotherapy had caused too much damage to my ovaries. I tried to convince myself it was the price I had to pay for my life, but nevertheless, it left me heartbroken. I was devastated at the thought of never becoming a mother, but I knew my life would be full and happy regardless.
In the early years after all this happened, I used to ask why it happened to me. What did I do? Was I a bad person? Was I a serial killer in a past life? Why did I have to go through this ordeal? The truth is that cancer doesn’t care who it affects, boy, girl, child, adult, or baby. It just comes to wreak as much damage as it can until it wins, or until we destroy every bit of its miserable existence. So we must fight, have hope, never give up, and believe that anything is possible.
My cancer battle happened 44 years ago. Today, I am a wife and a mother of two girls. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and my thyroid is gone due to thyroid cancer. But I have a family who supports me, friends to laugh with, and even though the chemotherapy did leave its mark, I still have a good hair day every now and then. Every day my life is a miracle.