It felt great to be able to share my story on national radio and discuss body image issues and cancer
Body image and cancer are difficult things to talk about at the best of times. In a way, talking about them can make you feel vulnerable and you could even say there is a stigma, especially with body image. Although that is not necessarily what I believe.
So you might be reading this wondering why I agreed to go on national radio with BBC Radio 5 live earlier this summer to talk about my experiences, along with two other young women and a member of staff from The Christie.
I think I did it because since being treated for cancer at The Christie I feel like a different person now, in a good way. I feel stronger, more willing to do adventurous things and I’m more confident in my own body.
There are so many people who helped me on this journey both within The Christie and amongst my friends and family to feel confident in my body, its strength to fight this disease and my changing appearance. From the many doctors and nurses to the body image group run by Anna at The Christie as well as those who helped me with confidence and strategies to cope with the relentless cannulas.
In fact, I was astonished when a magician magically showed up just after an awful experience with a cannula to cheer me up! And one close friend even cut her hair short in solidarity with me as I lost mine. Others supported me through messages of encouragement on Facebook, long phone calls and even hundreds of people praying for me from different church circles that my parents knew. It all gave me the strength to fight my battle.
It was a weird experience to be back in hospital in the Palatine ward, as it felt like my time there had been a lifetime ago.
When I was speaking on the radio, at first, I was a bit nervous. But then it felt great to be able to share my story with potentially millions of people and possibly help others with issues they have about their body image. And it was great to listen to the two other young women taking part, Chelsea and Seren. We were all at different stages of our treatment, and able to give encouragement to each other, and also share some advice we’d learnt along the way!
If you’d like to know more about my story please read on.
I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia in October 2015. I was 16, had finished high school, and was ready to have a fresh start at a new college.
Before my diagnosis, I was a pretty average teenager with the kind of body image issues that I think a lot of teenagers have.
I was self-conscious about my size and didn’t feel confident to walk around in tight clothing, usually sticking to baggy clothes. I would see girls who were ‘thin’ and wished I could be like them. However, these feelings did improve after I started feeling more comfortable in college.
I’d only managed about a month of college when I started getting weird symptoms, such as extreme fatigue and being breathless when doing hardly anything. I began thinking this wasn’t normal for a teenage girl. I’d also started getting tinnitus (ringing in the ears), half-hour-long nosebleeds and my appetite was depleting.
At one point I wondered if I had cancer. Then told myself not to be stupid because people my age don’t get cancer! When I look back on it now, I think I was only trying to convince myself of that.
I hardly knew anyone, young or old, who’d had cancer. I’d heard of Talia Castellano, a brave young blogger who had fought cancer for six years, but I’d never made the connection that it could happen to me.
Finally, on 23 October, my mum took me to A&E. We were supposed to visit my family that day, but I was too tired to get up and it took all the energy I had. My skin was also paler than usual. A few days before, my grandma had noticed how tired I looked and suggested it could be anaemia as it runs in the family. We went to the hospital expecting to get iron tablets but left with a cancer diagnosis.
Within 24 hours of my diagnosis, after getting transferred to Oldham hospital for the night, I was transferred to The Christie’s Teenage and Young Adult Unit. It may sound strange, but I was actually glad to be there. It wasn’t like the average hospital. The unit always had stuff going on, from crafts one day to a movie and pizza night the next. For me, it was a break from all the painful experiences with cannulas and the chemo brain.
One thing that stood out to me in the more than seven weeks I spent in hospital was the body image group facilitated by one of the members of staff, Anna. She had invited a small group of young women to come and share our experiences. We sat and talked a lot about cancer diagnosis, how it’s affected everyone and how our body image had been affected. As I looked around the room, I saw hope. There were women who had either completely finished chemotherapy or were outpatients, and that helped give me the strength and perseverance to know that if they can do it, so can I.
In hospital, I didn’t really pay much attention to my body’s state; I was too busy dealing with the intense chemotherapy to notice that I had started to lose a lot of weight due to the effects of treatment and being unable to eat enough. By the end of my time in hospital, I was around 52kg (about eight stone) and could barely walk because of how weak I was.
I found this quite upsetting and unsettling at the time. About three months before, I had wanted to lose weight. But now that I had, I realised it wasn’t all that it seemed and the truth was I looked extremely frail and not how I imagined looking. Ever since then, I’ve promised myself that I would never get to that state again. There’s nothing wrong with having fat and our bodies fight to keep us alive every day so our bodies are ideal just the way they are and not how the media tells us they should be.
In reality, some of the hardest things to do with body image during my treatment haven’t been visible to those around me, and that was the extreme fatigue and chemo brain that I’ve felt throughout treatment. What people see and what you experience are two completely different things. Only you as a person knows how you are feeling and it can be hard for people to empathise with patients who are having treatment.
A patient’s image of what they would like their body to be able to do is often different from the reality. Understanding this can be a great support to someone on this cancer journey.
I want to thank BBC Radio 5 live and The Christie for giving me the opportunity to share this story and to discuss a really important issue facing young women and men who get cancer. I want to thank the many people that have helped and supported me. Lastly, I want to thank anyone who has read this blog!