This Is What It Feels Like to Have Cancer at 20 Years Old
I wasn't "brave", I was fucking terrified.
"In some ways, what you have is treatable – though we don't really use the term 'cure'," sighed the haematologist. "'Remission' is much more appropriate."
There I was, listening to my consultant ramble on about semantics, waiting to hear whether or not I was going to die. I was another 20-year-old winner of the cancer lottery, one of the seven young people diagnosed with cancer in the UK every day. This was my day. What had previously been a statistic on a GP's waiting room wall had become my reality. My frankly very disappointing reality.
Aside from the whole life-threatening disease thing, everything had actually been going pretty well for me. I'd been in my first serious relationship for three-and-a-half months and had settled happily into British life as an exchange student, over from my native France.
In retrospect, this probably made the news slightly harder to stomach. For the first time I had someone whose happiness I valued over my own, compounding the anxiety I was already feeling. I also had an inkling that the impending treatment might put the stoppers on my usual regime of going to house parties and generally having fun without having to think about what was coming the next morning – whether it would involve a needle in my arm or a scalpel to my body or a massive machine making loud clicking noises while I laid inside, acutely aware of my own mortality.
And to think of how I'd ended up there: first, it was the swelling of a lymph node on the first day of summer. Then the local GP failing to acknowledge that something was wrong. Twice.
Then I did the sensible thing and tried to diagnose myself on the internet. For once, what I read was reassuring: nine times out of ten, said faceless strangers on a forum, swelling is just a symptom of a benign infection. However, just for peace of mind, I thought I'd pay one last visit to my GP to check that Dr Google wasn't bullshitting me – that there really wasn't anything wrong with this ugly growth that had started to annex my neck.
I was eventually referred to A&E, where I underwent a couple of infection-related tests. A fortnight later, a phone call summoned me to the hospital. The results were negative. Serious causes would have to be considered. To properly consider these serious causes, it transpired, I'd have to spend extended periods of time under anaesthetic/wearing arse-revealing hospital gowns/having bits of tissue cut out of me.
Weeks later, after being referred to a specialist in France, I was finally told what I could never resign myself to face, despite the fact the idea had been pawing away at the back of my mind for some time.
"It appears we have found abnormal cells during the biopsy. These are called Non-Hodgkin lymphoma cells. There are many different types of lymphoma. Yours is called diffuse large B-Cell."
The C word was dropped, uneasily.
My heart was pounding. I didn't really know what to think or say or do. Because what do you do when a doctor gives you the diagnosis you've been waiting weeks to hear, but which you'd really rather never hear in the first place? Thank them? That would have been weird. Instead, I just sat there and felt the life drain out of my body.
After nodding a bit while she reassured me that lymphoma is the cancer for which treatment is usually the most effective, I couldn't help but feel I was being punished for something beyond my understanding. I suddenly couldn't comprehend any kind of future, blurred as it was by the prospect of death. I was clueless as to how to announce the news to my friends and family. I found the idea of imposing my burden on others – especially my girlfriend – selfish. The thought of breaking up to spare her months of unnecessary pain even crossed my mind.
The weeks that followed revolved around further nerve-wracking tests that would tell me more about which stage my cancer was at, including MRI, PET scans, fertility tests and surgery. While I managed to keep a brave face in front of my loved ones, I spent the nights terrified, fixated on the prospect of leaving the world now, like this, at such short notice.
Then I started chemotherapy. I couldn't stand the idea of my hair falling out. I mean, who's bald at 20? I feared the worst: looking like the 2015 John Travolta. I even contemplated having a wig made. I despised my own shallowness for having those thoughts, but I was scared that my girlfriend would no longer find me attractive. I worried that losing my hair was almost like losing my identity.
One morning, I woke up covered in the hair I'd lost overnight, so borrowed a razor and shaved off the few remaining tufts. I got used to the look pretty quickly and dropped the hat I'd previously had glued to my head, worried the baldness might attract pity from my peers. But I put things into perspective: what's the loss of some hair compared to the loss of my life? To the few people I'd confirmed my diagnosis to, I was the victim of some cruel fate; to others, a bald guy. Maybe a gabber or a skinhead without the bovver boots, which isn't so bad. I accepted both definitions with a sort of contemptuous resignation.
The most devastating thing about my cancer was that I couldn't really do anything concrete to fight it. There are all those theories about cranberry and mango juice definitely saving your life, but as much as I tried, I couldn't help but swat them off as hopeless optimism. The cancer itself wasn't too hard to deal with physically. I experienced the nausea I'd been warned about, but luckily none of the vomiting.
The waiting was also incredibly stressful – first, how long it would be until I heard the words, "You are cancer-free"; and secondly, the wait to finally see those I loved in the UK. Stuck back in France, the cancer had put a physical distance between myself and the friends I'd made. While they were spending their money leisurely, I was squandering mine on the rent of a house I no longer lived in, as well as two-day return trips to England – my way to fight back against the disease, ensuring it wouldn't ruin my life.
I also felt distanced from the rest of the world. I couldn't find the words to talk to my family about it; I tried speaking to counsellors and a psychologist, but got the very distinct feeling the were just nodding at whatever I had to say; and there was no way I could express my feelings to the doctors. How could I expect to be understood by a bunch of people who'd shoot down the questions I desperately needed answering as mere platitudes, making me feel like an idiot to have asked?
Specialists know a lot about treatment, prognosis and chemotherapy. What they don't know – or decide not to tell you – is how lonely you'll feel, trapped in that hairless body of yours; how people look at you with clumsily disguised pity; how, in the end, you're just alone with your fears.
Most of the people affected by cancer I've spoken to adopted a similar mindset: they want to be looked at as normal human beings, not as poor dying souls. Which makes a lot of sense when you think about it, because that idea defines how the world wrongly looks at cancer. The first question I was asked when I told people of my illness was whether I was OK – code for, "Are you dying?" – as though I was condemned, as though I had the words "terminally ill" tattooed across my eyelids.
In the end, after four sessions of chemotherapy spread over a period of three-and-a-half months, remission was declared. I had survived cancer, and the hospital's horrendous food. A year and a half later, I'm back to my normal life and, most importantly, to my girlfriend, away from the needles and the hospitals beds and the exhibitionist gowns.
However, before I can be declared "cured", I still need to get through trimestral check-ups for another three-and-a-half years.
Today, people tell me I was strong and brave to have fought cancer at 20. I guess it's what's expected of them, but it still jars with me. I wasn't so much brave as lucky to have had people surrounding me as I went through the process. Lucky that I was able to travel when I was ill, that the promise of a reunion with the girl I love kept my spirits up. Lucky that the chemo worked on me.
I'm not sure what I've done to earn the epithet "brave", and it makes me feel uncomfortable. I never have been – and probably never will be – brave. I was shit-scared. Absolutely fucking terrified. I just did what I'd imagine most in a similar condition would have done: hung on to hope.
The biggest question now playing on my mind is, "How do I live a normal life again?" How do I envisage the future when the chance of a relapse is always there? How do I breach the topic of starting a family when chemotherapy has pretty much ruined any chance I had of having kids?
I guess, for me, the best way to deal with it – to keep these questions from constantly plaguing me – is to write about them. It's much easier to express my feelings on the page than with my voice, and working through them in articles like this – letters to myself, essentially – I'm able to put things in perspective.
But I'm still scared. Because really, what else can be done but wait to see how things turn out? All I know is that I'm grateful to be alive.
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