It all feels like a dream now, but one that you never forget. Almost like a surreal out-of-body experience where you see yourself from above and remember your story in a haze. When I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma I was 21 yrs old and in the middle of my university study. I went to the doctor with a simple stomach ache that I had for over a week. The doctor at the student clinic immediately sent me to the emergency room at the university hospital – where of course, they looked at me, a 21-year-old, skinny and active student and quickly sent me home, advising me that my symptoms were that of Hep B which I probably caught 3 years before from my belly button ring. So I went home to “sleep it off”. But of course the symptoms got worse. The doctor at the university clinic had already arranged for me to have a follow-up appointment a week after my first visit. When I went in that day to the clinic, he was a little disgusted that the hospital did not send me in for an ultra sound. At this point my skin was becoming very jaundice and I was having troubles with going to the washroom. The stomach ache was still there and I had no appetite (something very rare for me). The doctor at the clinic called the hospital right away to see if there were any ultrasound appointments available. Luckily, someone had cancelled and I just happened to have not eaten anything that day.
As I got into the ultrasound room, the technician bounced in with lots of energy. She looked at me the same way that the emergency room doctor did – that look as though this might be a waste of time because on the outside I looked healthy. She was chatting away about things, saying that it was so easy to find things in me since I was so slim, all in a very chipper tone when suddenly she went dead silent. She pushed on the top right side of my abdomen and I told her that was where I was hurting. She asked me if I had ever been in a car accident or had a bad fall. I said no and asked “Why?”. “Well” she said “See this here, this black circle? We need to take a closer look” I saw the look of panic in her eyes. That breath holding kind of moment, when you as the patient wonder if you need to calm the other person in the room down. “I’ll be back” she said and hopped up quickly to leave the dark room. She returned with a doctor and informed me that he was a specialist. When he looked at my ultrasound, he told the technician to find out if the MRI machine was available. I knew then that this was more than a stomach ache. That afternoon, I had an MRI and was referred to a liver specialist for a follow-up appointment that week.
I remember that appointment very well. It was a sunny day and it was during the SARS scare, so I was only allowed to bring my boyfriend into the hospital as my parents and grandmother sat in the car outside the hospital. The doctor came in, I was sitting on the exam bed and my then boyfriend (now husband) was in a chair. The doctor explained that they found a spot on my liver during the ultrasound and asked me if I had any idea of what it might be. Of course the few days following up to this appointment I was all over the internet and talking to family members trying to figure out what this black spot was. So I said to him “An ulcer?” He said “Maybe. It could be that. But it is more likely cancer. We would like to schedule a biopsy to determine exactly what it is.” I kinda went numb. “Do you have more family here?” He asked “Yes, downstairs, but security wouldn’t let them in” I responded. “I will get them up here.” he said. He left the exam room and my boyfriend looked at me and got up and gave me a hug. “Well, this sucks” I said to him. Those were my words. This sucks. And it’s true, it did suck. But, I knew that I would get through this. The biopsy later that week showed that it was indeed cancer and that I would need to see an oncologist for further follow up.
It was 5 weeks to finally see someone. In that period of time, I lost 30lbs, my stomach was the size of a woman who was 6 months pregnant and I was literally the colour green. Turns out, when you are jaundice, you go from yellow, to orange and then to green. I remember taking the elevator in my apartment down one day and a two year old came on with his parents. He looked up at me innocently and said “You’re green!” and I said “Yes, yes I am” His parents were embarrassed. “Why?” he asked with pure honest curiosity. “I’m very sick” I said to him. And I was, very sick. When I saw the doctor at the cancer clinic, I was admitted right away and began chemo treatments that night. I was relieved. Odd, I know. You’d think I would be stressed out about the fact that I had cancer. But instead, I was relieved that I was going to feel better. Finally I was getting treatment. The next day, I had a bowel movement! A HUGE relief because it was my first in 5 weeks and I knew that the treatment was working and that it would continue to work! I spent the rest of the week in hospital and then was released for out-patient treatment. Which was great, because that meant that I could be comfortable at home while getting the help that I needed. This also meant I was able to go back to school full-time to continue my studies.
I began to lose my hair after the second treatment. At the time I worked at a hair salon. I decided to go in and have it chopped nice and short and died bright red! Why not? I was going to lose this hair either way, might as well have fun with it. I got this great pixie cut and felt like a super model. It was two weeks later that my hair was falling out significantly. My boyfriend said that there were a lot a bald spots. I knew I was going to shave it off anyways, so we figured it would be fun to let him do it. As he buzzed it off in the middle of the kitchen, we had fun taking pictures, making jokes. Finally when it was all off I said I wanted to see it. All excited, I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My smile quickly turned to silence, and then to sobbing. The reality that I had cancer hit. Before this point I had not cried, I was not scared, but now I could visually see that I had this disease.
The doctors had projected that I would need 8 treatments of hard-core chemotherapy. They ran tests after treatment 4, the results were positive and there was only a need for 2 more treatments. This was great news! The treatments were working. And here we are 11 years later! I happily married my then boyfriend and four years ago we were blessed with a son. Last year our sweet baby girl came along. I still see a doctor once a year for a check up but work on a daily basis to stay healthy with food and exercise.
Listen, shit happens. Cancer happens and it is something you will never forget, even if you wanted to put it behind you, it will always be there. The best we can do is trying to prevent further disease and give thanks for cancer research, so that more people can get through this disease and move past the bumps!