Battling with Cancer

I STARTED at Aber in September 2010, studying International Politics and Military History, and loved every minute of my life here. However, around Christmas time, I began to feel under the weather. This was normal for me as I had suffered from a kidney disorder since I was three years old, and have been on drugs which lower my immune system for most of my life, meaning I’m almost always ill with something.

When I started suffering from night sweats and what I thought was toothache, I decided to go home early for the Easter holidays. The pain got worse and I had to have an emergency appointment with the dentist, who took X-rays, though they couldn’t see anything wrong.

I was referred to a specialist who had me admitted to hospital in Swansea. During the many tests and scans I underwent in the first week of admission, a biopsy was taken from a lump under my arm that had become enlarged.

Some scans later revealed that my kidneys and liver were riddled with cancer. Burkitt’s lymphoma is a very aggressive, rare type of cancer that forms mainly in people with weak immune systems. It usually affects the face, which is what caused the extreme pain in my jaw, while making my lower lip completely numb. This upset me a lot, mostly because I couldn’t whistle to annoy people any more.

I was told the treatment would be four months of intensive chemotherapy, and one of the hardest courses to go through. I was immensely relieved when I was told that the chances of the cancer coming back were only one in four. This gave me something to focus on and be positive about.

At the beginning of treatment I had a fighting attitude and a good (if sometimes dark) sense of humour which kept my spirits up. I even had my hairdresser friend shave my head, leaving a Mohawk down the middle and a Pacman on the side!

Everything started quickly, and I was given a small dose of chemotherapy to purge most of the cancer from the lumps on my side. This complicated things with my kidneys but thankfully I didn’t have to have dialysis.

After a while I was allowed a break, and I returned to Aberystwyth to empty my room and inform the university I would need to temporarily withdraw. My housemates were shocked at how much weight I had already lost, but still managed to find ways to tease me.

Soon after the main chemotherapy started, my health rapidly declined and I lost even more body weight. Something that hit me hard was seeing my legs, which had become toned from mountain biking, waste away to nothing until I was barely able to walk. I wasn’t even strong enough to move in my sleep so every night I would have hideous nightmares of being trapped or underwater.

After a while, I had stopped eating and was hooked up to various drips for 24 hours a day leaving me feeling trapped, and I lost my fighting spirit. My view of time gradually changed from “four months and I’m finished,” to “I’ll just get through this hour and see what the next brings”.

Later on, I had to have nine injections of chemo to stop the cancer possibly spreading into my brain. These injections went directly into my spine and were hell. Something went wrong with the second injection that left me with the worst ever two-day migraine. After what can only be described as the longest and hardest month in my life, I was allowed home for a little over a week.

After this break, I was visited by a CLIC Sargent social worker, who told me about the role of the Teenage Cancer Trust unit (TCT) and the Rhys Daniels Trust (RDT) accommodation in Cardiff.

Moving to the TCT offered me such a change in my treatment that I started to dramatically improve. I was able to regain my sense of humour and fighting attitude, and having gas and air for the big chemo injections also helped to make the process easier.

Without the use of the RDT flat, I am sure the costs of visiting would have prevented people from being there with me throughout my chemo. It doesn’t bare thinking about that I would have to have faced the hardest time of my life alone.

I am now in remission and have regular check-ups every 10 weeks. I won’t be given the all clear officially for five years; the danger is that it could return in the first two.

Returning to University was quite difficult and complicated. It involved liaising between the various departments in the University, and trying to sort out logistical issues after being seriously ill only added to my stress. However, my academic department was often very helpful and sympathetic.

The complications were due to my temporary withdrawal. The Academic Office said that I couldn’t re-sit the three exams I had missed. Instead, I would have to do three new modules to replace the ones I had already half-finished! After a while of communication back and forth, they eventually agreed that this would be unfair, and that I would do three essays instead. However this meant things got financially complicated, as I had to effectively withdraw my withdrawal and pay fees to cover semester two of first year.  My advice is, don’t instantly accept terms the University give you. You’re paying to study here and there are procedures in place to address situations in which you feel you’re being unfairly treated.

Thankfully, everything is back to normal now and I have returned to my studies, though with the added benefit that I don’t have kidney trouble any more – I’m only suffering essay deadline panic, as I imagine many of you are! Oh, and I can whistle again, much to the annoyance of my family and housemates.