At the age of 15 I was busy studying for my GCSEs and enjoying time with my friends – then I found out I had cancer and suddenly everything was different. Thankfully, Maggie's was there to help me through the difficult months of treatment.
Nothing could prepare you for the moment you’re told you have cancer, and when you’re 15 years old, like I was, you really don’t expect to hear those words. For my parents, it was probably even more of a shock. My older sister Fiona had had cancer when she was three, so for me to be diagnosed with it too was pretty unbelievable.
I’d gone for tests because I had cysts on my neck, which they’d found out were because of my thyroid not working properly. The cysts were sore and uncomfortable, but I really didn’t think they were anything to worry about, and neither did the doctors.
In July last year, I had an operation to take out half of my thyroid, and they sent a sample off to test. When the results came back, we were really shocked to find it was cancer. It was so strange, sitting in that room in the hospital that I’d been in loads of times for test results. They’d always been fine before, but this time everything was different. I just burst into tears. No one expected it, not even my consultant.
My first thoughts were about the treatment I’d have to have, whether it would hurt and make me feel ill and tired, and whether I’d have to miss a lot of school. I was only a baby when my sister had cancer, but I knew she’d been sent to hospital, which was about an hour’s drive away from our home, and had had to stay there for a while, so I wondered if that would happen to me, too.
Thyroid cancer is really rare for someone my age, and I ended up being on a ward with people much older than me. Being the youngest meant it was hard to relate to the other people being treated. For quite a while, I didn’t meet anyone my age with cancer and that made me feel lonely and isolated.
Although I was glad I didn't have to have chemo, I had to have radioactive iodine therapy, which meant I had to be shut in a room on my own for three days, with hardly any contact with anyone. When my parents came to visit, they had to stay by the door and I'd have to sit on the other side of the room. I could talk to them, but I couldn't hug them. I’m quite an affectionate person and I’ll always go to my parents when something’s wrong, so that made me feel isolated. I felt really lonely, sitting on my own in that room and seeing updates on my phone from my friends at school. I wanted to know whatthey were doing, but seeing that they were getting on with their lives made me feel that I was missing out. It made me wonder when and if I’d be able to do the things I enjoy again.
The iodine used in the treatment spreads into other parts of your body and it gave me swollen glands and made me feel really sick. I’d thought that when the treatment ended, I’d feel better, but when you have your thyroid removed you have to take medication to replace the hormones that the thyroid releases. Like most people, I’d never given much thought to what my thyroid did before I got ill, but part of its function is to regulate temperature and tiredness and levels of concentration. The drugs I was given didn’t work at first and so I felt really tired and would feel cold even if it was 30 degrees outside.
That was worrying because I didn’t know if was going to feel better. My parents are very proactive – as soon as there’s a problem, they jump into action. They were in touch with the hospital a lot, trying to get someone to sort it out, but no one could give us any information. That was a hard time for my parents too. I know they didn’t like seeing me ill and not being able to make it better.
My parents had seen the centre near Singleton Hospital and had gone in to have a look. They told me it was somewhere I could go that might make me feel better, where I could ask questions about cancer and treatment and meet other people. It turned out to be a massive help. I was studying for my GCSEs at the time and I got information about options that I could have with exams and special circumstances, which really helped to make it seem less stressful.
I didn’t make an announcement on social media about having cancer, but telling my friends was strange and I was a bit upset by some of their reactions. When I texted one friend telling her I had cancer, her response was: ‘nice’. I know people, especially young people, can find it difficult to talk about things like this, but I was quite upset by that.
When you’re 16, missing a week of school feels like missing a year, and when my friends came to see me, they’d all be talking about things I knew nothing about. Because I didn’t have chemotherapy, I didn’t lose my hair, and some people at school actually didn’t believe I had cancer. It’s bad enough to have cancer, and it was quite upsetting to have people asking why my hair hadn’t fallen out.
Even though I was ill, it felt important to carry on with my GCSEs. It gave me something to aim for, a bit of normality, and I thought, “Well, what’s the worst that can happen? I could fail them and have to resit.”
But I didn’t fail – I got all As and Bs and now I’m doing my A-Levels in Biology, Psychology and Art.
I’ve been given the all clear now, but that doesn’t mean everything just goes back to normal – that’s not how it works. I still have questions, still wonder how things could have been done differently and there are still moments when I feel really emotional about it.
One of the great things about Maggie’s is that it’s there whenever you need it. I usually go to the centre on a Wednesday afternoon and it’s lovely that I’ve got to know the staff and volunteers. Just having that place to go, where I can talk to other people who have been through or are going through cancer, makes all the difference.
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