‘My life came to a screeching halt’
FOR me, my cancer journey has been a life-long ordeal. After losing my father to Leukaemia at age nine, a month later I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and underwent surgery and chemotherapy.
I have always called it my "sympathy cancer", as I believe it was the stress of losing my father that caused my initial illness. At the time I thought I wouldn't survive, as the only experience I had ever had with cancer was through my father. All I knew of it was that it was unforgiving, made you so ill that you could barely stand and it eventually would take your life.
But I got through the treatment and after a year I was back at school and recovering quite well. I never thought I would get cancer again. But then at age 24 I heard those words once more. I was a singer, model and designer and again my world came to a screeching halt.
It was cancer, a Wilm's tumour. I knew it would be months of vomiting and being frail, marking off the days until treatment ended. Unfortunately it was much worse than I'd imagined and at my lowest weight I went down to a tiny 36kg from my initial 55kg. I fatigued walking only a few metres and would get weekly blood transfusions as the treatment started to take its toll. My heart would pound from exhaustion. I had had my kidney removed, started chemo and radiation all at once and ended up with blood clots in my lungs, lost all my hair and had other complications.
I felt completely isolated seeing only my boyfriend at the time, my mother and the hospital staff for many months on end. I needed help dressing, washing, cooking and cleaning. My independence was completely taken from me and eventually it would be the catalyst that would end my relationship.
It was the most trying time physically, emotionally and financially, yet it wasn't until my final day of treatment came around that the depression and anxiety really began. Cancer is not like a cold or broken leg where you go through your recovery and think nothing more of it. This cancer took from me long after the signs were no longer visible to the outside world. I think while I was going through the hell of it all, I had a purpose and would try to help patients around me not doing so well. But when it finished I felt lost, depressed, alone and different - like an outsider in my own life. It had caused social anxieties to develop and everything I once found easy had become more of a chore.
But again, now taking almost seven years to recover to an acceptable level, I did finally make it through but with a lot of effort. I was tired, but eventually glad I made it back to health.
I wasn't as confident now in the thought that I would never get cancer again but I was 80% sure. Again my confidence was shaken and I received a diagnosis after eight years in the clear, I was 32. I had just finished a psychology degree that I chose to begin after my second cancer. I had wanted to help other cancer patients as much as I could after having experienced the unique issues young people go through with this awful illness.
This time it was thyroid cancer. After two surgeries and some radiation treatment, I thought I was in the clear again but unfortunately they hadn't gotten everything. Within six months I was back in surgery and had all my lymph nodes on one side of my neck removed.
Today, I don't know if I'll ever get ill again, or if I'm 100% in the clear but what I do know is that life is so short and fleeting. We need to make the most of every moment we can. Sometimes we don't get second chances. I'm so grateful to still be standing after all that I have been through.
I am now an advocate for You Can a youth cancer organisation for 16-30 year-olds going through cancer and also support young people through an online platform called Ihadcancer.com developed by You Can Connect.
It is so important to have someone to speak to and often in these times it can be hard or impossible to find others that truly understand. If anyone you know has been through or is going through cancer or is looking after someone who needs a little social support please suggest CanTeen or Ihadcancer.com.
I hope one day cancer is a thing of the past, but until then we need to support each other and invest in research, not only for cures, but also for improving outcomes for long-term health complications after these aggressive treatments.
Jacqueline is a guest on Insight on Tuesday 20 February at 8.30pm on SBS, which explores how young people get on with life after cancer.