There’s a lot of ‘life-changing’ stuff going on in your late 20s. The stuff that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, that helps define you and sets you on your merry little way. You know - new homes, big jobs, overseas adventures, pet cactuses, relationships, engagements, babies, etc. The type of stuff where there’s a before <insert life-changing stuff> and after <insert life-changing stuff>. It’s probably the stuff you’ll ramble on to your grandkids while they pretend to listen through their 3rd bionic ear attached to the iPhone 42S. That sort of stuff.
My life-changing stuff happened in 2012. Before <life-changing cancer stuff> my world was pretty darn peachy. I was about to turn 27, I’d just moved to Richmond with two mates and taken my first job as an Art Director in an uber cool ad agency. I had a cute boyfriend and a treasure chest of friends. Life was good. It was textbook 27-year old life. Friends, parties, work and my two alpacas. Standard.
Out and about in Melbourne. 2 weeks before I was diagnosed.
And then for a reason I may never know, that happy bubble popped and I landed hard in cancer land. A world of chemo, hospitals, 8 syllable words, concerned doctors, terrified parents, awkward friends, frequent naps and shiny bald heads. It smelt like industrial disinfectant and it sucked. I had many a ‘WTF - is this for real’ moments which often ended in big dramatic snotty melt downs. (Kleenex probably did well that month.)
Not impressed in chemo land.
A lot happened in this first ‘life-changing’ event. I was forced to slow down, forced to stop work, forced to lie there and think about life. Think about what I like doing. What I hate doing. Who I like doing things with. I dreamt about starting a business. About taking some trips. Learning a language. Learning Harmonica. And I thought long and hard about whether Ross and Rachel should have stayed together or whether Joey was the best option.
I learnt that lemonade icey poles are not just a refreshing treat, but also prevent mouth ulcers forming in your mouth. I learnt veins hate chemo. I learnt sometimes disasters make relationships stronger. I learnt shaving your head is not the hell scarish traumatic event that I was expecting. I learnt wigs get real tight and itchy after about 10.30am. I learnt what absolute exhaustion felt like and I got good at putting on a brave face. It was a weird 6 month rollercoaster ride but I got through.
My number one chemo buddy, Steph and I. We threw an after chemo party where everyone wore wigs.
Then came round 2.
There are no words to describe what a kick in the guts relapse feels like. Nothing. It completely winded me, it took me down, my world stopped spinning. I can safely say, that was one of the worst days of my life. I remember my oncologist telling me my scan had showed dodgy lymph glands. That they were active and angry. He got me up on the bed to examine me. He got me to breathe in and out, in and out. And then as I inhaled and exhaled I started to sob. I desperately asked him whether it could be a mistake? Whether maybe those lymph glands were fighting a cold or virus my body was secretly hiding? Maybe a pet scan would reveal I was fit and healthy? Maybe it would all go away? You realise the sense of control we think we have over our lives, is not real. Not real at all. Suddenly you’re slapped in the face with ‘life-changing’ again. And it sucks.
That the lovely new hair you grew? Gone.
Those recovering veins? Surrender them.
The energy to get out of bed, run, walk, skip and jump? Welcome back nap time!
Your fast paced brain function. Say hi to chemo brain.
Those festivals? That overseas adventure? That road trip? Not this time buddy!
Having to tell everyone that you have cancer again. That your body failed. That the cancer won this round. Bingo.
Then on top of that, they tell you this round is going to be far more severe. They are going to throw everything at the little cancer cells squatting in your body. Everything. Think Die Hard 3. The explosion scene. Kaaaaaaabooooooooom.
This time, I not only lost my hair, my energy, and my motivation. I lost so much more. I lost my carefree and innocence. My patience with the universe. My understanding and reason. Quite honestly, I lost my shit. I can remember forgetting how to smile, not having the energy to be me, deep sighs that brought no relief and naps that never cured the fatigue. I pushed my ‘shit-scared’ meter through the roof and my dark blue mood into another colour spectrum.
But with the bad stuff comes the good stuff. And hey, you get up, you dust yourself off and one day, (a lot later than expected) you pop out the other side. And in comparison, the good stuff shines brighter than ever before. Good stuff like more love and gratitude for my A-grade friends and family than I thought humanly possible. An appreciation for health, brain power and the energy to get out of bed every day. For green foods and mindfulness. Curly hair! Respect for the human body. For medicine. For doctors and nurses. And a shiny new perspective on life. An unbreakable strength, a bit of bravery and a new obsession with turbans. I’ve had a life shake up that most people don’t get until they’re well into retirement and considering which Apia policy to take out next. I know so much more about myself, my body plus a load of weird medical things. I can confidently say, I know what I want with this precious life.
Some of the A-grade friends after a head shave.
Some of the A-grade family on a chemo outing.
And now it’s my turn for ‘life-changing stuff’ again. But this time the good sort. The stuff that’s going to fill my instagram feed with jealousy generating imagery. (Consider this your warning.) A trip around the world to source headscarves, meet a million new people, do some design, start this bravery project and to write this blog. It’s been a long time coming and I’m buzzing with excitement. I want to share some cancer tales and tips in the hope it will provide some insight and make the whole topic less scary and awkward. I also hope it will also bring some comfort to those cancer hustlers - especially the younger ones. I learnt that sessions with the most expensive psychologist will never come close to one conversation with another cancer patient. They get it. You don’t feel so alone. As Mastercard would say, it’s ‘priceless.’
So wish me luck, I’m off to conquer the world, catch up on everything I missed out on and change my life - for the better.