What no one tells you about having cancer
LAST year I became one of the youngest Australians to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Eight weeks before my 21st, I was given the horrible news that more than 17,000 other Australian women are handed each year.
During that time I did rounds of chemo (which my body rejected), then moved on to radiation. It was terrifying and isolating.
Towards the end of the year I did 30 rounds of radiation, was admitted to hospital a couple more times and I officially beat cancer on January 24, 2018!
I've continued with my three weekly Herceptin treatment (immune targeted therapy) and I'm still struggling with society's view of 'getting back to normal life' once your hair has grown back and you're told you have no evidence of disease.
Radiation. It was horrendous. 30 rounds, 30 days and no less than 30 minutes being spent in a cold radiotherapy treatment room with nothing but my own thoughts. It was extremely difficult to say the least. Because, as women, we are taught that there are certain parts of our body to be considered 'private'. Parts of our body that we choose who to share them with.
Unfortunately, when you're diagnosed with cancer you don't really have that say, you'll simply do anything it takes to stay alive. So, that's exactly what I did for six weeks. I was tattooed with markings, drawn on with pen and left to lay with my hands above my head as they targeted three crucial areas; the tumour site, underneath my right arm and also the right side of my collarbone.
The burns from radiation were surprisingly not as intense as I conjured in my mind to be. They were noticeable, but nothing that a nice ice pack and some chilled steroid cream from the fridge couldn't remedy. However, it was my mind that I couldn't exactly grab something out of the fridge to fix. These ultimately damaging thoughts of 'what if' and 'what next', were exactly that; damaging.
My appointment with my oncologist was looming and I simply didn't know what my scans and blood results were going to show. Well, I did. It was either one or the other. You've beaten the cancer, or you haven't. I had two hospital admissions during radiation. One being bronchitis, which had me incredibly nervous for scan results, as breast cancer is known to spread to the lungs. The other saw me rushed to hospital by ambulance with pains in my chest, and down my left arm. It was simply put down to the physical and emotional stress I had been dealing with over the past 12 months.
I was scared and I felt alone. People could no longer see the physical effects that the cancer was having on me, but they also couldn't see the internal effects it was having on me either. My hair was starting to grow back, I wasn't throwing up 24/7 and I no longer had a semi permanent residence in the oncology ward. It was an isolating experience in that you couldn't have anyone in the room to cheer you up if cancer and all its emotions tried to rush out of your body all at once.
I had completed 25 of 30 rounds when I met with my oncologist to ultimately find out what was next. I knew my scan results were in, and I was certain that I needed to do more to beat this cancer.
"Okay, so I'll see you in three months time."
That simple sentence allowed me to have my first sigh of relief in 12 months. Just. Like. That. I was done? Don't get me wrong. I was elated and thankful. I am every single day. However, I couldn't help but think 'what now?' This life that I've known for what feels like a lifetime. The countless doctors appointments, scheduling my week around what days I'll be well enough to go out in public, chemotherapy, radiation and constantly having a hospital bag packed 'just in case'. It was all about to end.
This was what I knew, what I was almost comfortable with. I gave up everything to fight this battle and now I'm about to re-enter normality and try to pick up where I left off. Just like I was scared in the beginning of what was to come, the same worrying thoughts lit up in my mind when I was told I had no evidence of disease in my body.
My oncologist gave me the incredible news on the January 24, 2018. I still had to finish radiation and the worst side effects were still to come. I had six months of Herceptin to go, and my hormone therapy was to be continued for the next five years minimum. It's better than the latter (that I hadn't beaten it), however it still didn't mean that I could walk out of that building to never return. Which is exactly how I imagined it to be when I was first diagnosed with cancer. In fact, it was the complete opposite.
Radiation ended, and so came the side effects of burns and fatigue. The burns healed, however the fatigue is still lingering four months later. I'm not sure if it was my naivety, or longing to hear those words in the beginning but I truly believed that as soon as treatment ended, I would be back to the old me. I was so wrong. This transition into normal life is bloody difficult.
Many people who know of what I've endured these past 12 months tell me I'm 'strong' or 'brave' and while these are all beautiful qualities to be thought to have, I didn't have a choice. I had shit to do. At the time of diagnosis, I was 20 going on 21 a few months later. There was no way that my book was ending like this. This mentality is what kept me going, which is why I think I'd only given myself one option for life after cancer. To go back to the Bianca I was before life had other plans.
No one told me that I would be battling the anxieties in my own mind once the cancer decided to f**k off. I didn't know that I would be unable to sleep at night, the thought of reoccurrence at the forefront of my mind. Or that I would burst into tears as soon as a part of my body ached from the lingering chemotherapy side effects and surgery pain.
The havoc the hormone injections and daily tablets are causing my body and mind, starving it of oestrogen and progesterone so that the b**tard of a disease doesn't decide to rock up late to the party. Or, that I'd have so much time to think. Simply be consumed by the overwhelming thoughts of fighting for your life, feeling like you've lost yourself, beating cancer and now trying to get back to normality. A job, university, being social again, dating.
F**k, even having hair is a new thing for me?!
These are all real thoughts and worries I struggle with, daily. That's the thing. They are real. No one talks about this shit. You only ever hear about how someone beats cancer and then conquers the world. I only heard those stories at least. I wish I knew how important it was to be told that when you finish with treatment, you'd never go back to 'normal'.
Mental health and wellbeing is just as important as the other stuff. It isn't spoken about simply because society has taught us that by putting your hand up for help isn't the 'right' thing to do. I, like everybody else in this world have struggles. I'm no longer afraid to show people that I am human and that I too cry, scream, hurt and feel weak; just like everyone reading this.
This is a hard fight. The start, middle and the end. I'm slowly learning that I'll find a new 'normal' and well that, is simply fine too.