I sailed through chemotherapy but still cancer almost took my life  

I’ve had better birthdays than my 17th. What started out as a trip to the Doctor with suspected dermatitis quickly escalated into a rash that my Mum feared was meningitis, to being admitted to hospital with a temperature of almost 40°C and severe dehydration. Nobody knew what was wrong with me. I couldn’t sleep and felt totally confused.

After all sorts of blood tests and assessments, we were called in to see the consultant. My parents went first and when I joined them I knew there was something really wrong because they were both crying. That’s when they told me I had leukaemia.     

I just said, “Oh, OK.”

I didn’t cry. I was stunned. One minute I’d just finished the first year of my A Levels, the next I was being told I had leukaemia in 99% of my body.  Instead of preparing for University I was facing at least a year of treatment consisting of two sets of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, followed by three years of recovery. 

Leukaemia is the most common type of cancer in teenagers and children. It’s a cancer of the white blood cells where abnormal cells form in the bone marrow. It quickly travels through the bloodstream and crowds out the healthy cells which raises the body’s chance of infection. I was told I had both types of leukaemia – acute myeloid and acute lymphoblastic.  

Shortly after being diagnosed I had my first bone marrow biopsy. Both my Dad, and the nurse who was with me, fainted. I didn’t, but it was the most excruciating pain in the world and it hurt for weeks after.

I was transferred to the teenage and young adult ward at Southampton General Hospital and started chemotherapy straight away.  I sailed through the first set with not too much sickness and my treatment was going well, but then I got an infection which led to sepsis.

I’ve since been told that being 17 probably saved my life at that point. If I’d been older my body probably wouldn’t have been able to cope.  Sepsis can lead to tissue damage and organ failure and I was put in a coma for three weeks. They threw every type of drug at me but still I didn’t respond, so they tried a blood filtration device which removed five litres of fluid from my body, and finally I began to recover.         

Because I’d been bed bound for so long my muscles had wasted and I had to learn to walk again. I was told that it would take me a month, but I literally grabbed the zimmer frame and ran with it, determined that no one would stop me! I was desperate to get out of there.   

After another successful round of chemotherapy I was told I was less than 0.1% leukaemic. It had worked! I was in remission within three months of my diagnosis and my consultant was ecstatic about how I’d reacted to the chemotherapy. Next up was the bone marrow transplant. My journey through cancer had been very up and down up to this point. I’d sailed through chemotherapy but been set back by infection, and this was to be no different.  The match was perfect, but I almost died during the transplant because of another infection. For three months my body had been battered with the cancer, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, infection and fatigue, and now I had also stopped eating because I couldn’t keep anything down.

Luckily, I pulled through and was able to go home to recover, but I think that’s really when I started to find things tough mentally. I’d nearly died during my treatment and that was hard to come to terms with.  I felt confused and angry for myself, but more than anything I felt guilty that I had survived when others hadn’t. It felt like a miracle that I was still alive. I’d made friends in hospital and subsequently lost six of them to cancer in the following months and years.  Why them and not me? How was that fair? That was when I started visiting Wessex Cancer Trust’s Waterside Support Centre. I trusted them and felt like I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone. Relationships with some of my friends changed a bit during my cancer treatment but the befrienders at the Support Centre understood and let me release my anger and frustrations.

I don’t think some of my feelings will ever go away, but the befrienders have helped me to live with them and cope with my worries for the future. The last few years have been relentless and I’ve got a  very different outlook on life now. After almost 18 months off Sixth Form College I’ve just finished my A Levels and have accepted a place at Reading University to do Microbiology. I’m not out of the woods yet, but know there’s a good chance I won’t relapse and now I want to make the most of every opportunity.  

Above all, I’ve learnt that human life is sacred and I’m in awe of the lengths one individual will go to in order to save the life of another.    

 Around 4,500 children and young people are diagnosed with cancer every year in the UK. For more information you can visit www.childrenwithcancer.org.uk
Cancer can be a huge shock at any age, but particularly challenging for children and young people. Wessex Cancer Trust’s specialist support services ensure local children get the support and help they need for free in a local setting.