This shoot ‘You Are Not A Girl, You Are A Sword’ represents regrowth and features my beads of courage. There are over 300 of them – each one represents a different procedure I underwent over those six months. This is my story.
In the beginning, I came back from a surfing trip and went to the GP for a cough. Seven hours later, I was in a consultant’s office at the hospital being told that my X-ray showed I had lymphoma. Primary mediastinal large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare cancer. The world went silent. I waited for my aunt, a doctor, to come to my side and within 10 minutes, she was walking me down to the CT scanner. I was deaf to the world until I laid down on that machine, starting to cry. “I don’t want cancer, I don’t want cancer.” She held my hand tight and said: “We can do this.”
I was diagnosed at just 23 years old. This type of cancer is usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiotherapy but doctors at The Royal Marsden Hospital put together a new, safer game plan without radiotherapy. The first round of chemo left me in the foetal position for 16 hours in pain as the tumour tore itself away from my lung walls. Who knew that having a watermelon-sized tumour crushing your lungs and heart would be so hard to destroy? There were days when I wouldn’t let my family hug or touch me because my body just hurt. There’s the sort of hurt where you need a massage, then ten levels above that is a pain where it’s like holding a live wire. You sit in it until the surge of pulsating pain leaves your bones.
I got a two-week break between my chemo to feel better(ish). I managed to bag all the possible side effects (which can include hair loss, throat and mouth sores, and diarrhoea) as well as inventing some new ones. I had an incredible medical team, though, that laughed at my dark humour and comforted me every time I came in with new ones.
There was an army of family and friends behind me every step of the way. They put on their best game faces, even though there must have been a 100 times when they wanted to break down or run away. They were stoic and carried me through to the next day when I needed it. Amid the anguish, I have beautiful memories from those six months. My family and friends organised my 70 plus pills a day, temporarily tattooed my bald head, patted me back to sleep when I woke up scared. They even worked on a special photoshoot to document my experience and show their love. Taking it in shifts, they all devised the most creative ways to cheer me up. My teenage brother was a genius when it came to making me laugh. He would do sketches with surgical gloves and any other prop he found in the hospital.
My cat, Maisie, had an intuition like no other. It’s unbelievable but she would knead my back where the tumour pain was when she slept with me every night. When I was really sick, she’d stay in the house with me. She stopped playing and mimicked my mood. When I could barely move, she would lie there with me. When I went to the bathroom to be sick, she followed me so I was always being watched over. I believe with all my soul that Maisie was my guardian angel.
My parents are the true superheroes. They showered me, fed me pills, and stayed with me every night in the hospital. In films, they never show you the days when the parents have to convince their children to go in for “just one more round”. There was a day when my mum suggested we take longer breaks to help me recuperate but it posed a risk. I told her that, with their help, I would get through this and her faith never quivered again. A few days later, my nurse called me on Christmas Eve in 2018 to tell us that the tumour had shrunk by 73 per cent.
The night before my scan results in July 2019, I came home from an evening spent crying on my friend’s shoulder. I had completed (another) six months of intensive treatment by that point, which isn’t long in terms of cancer. I had been told I was in ‘remission’ three months prior, but I still had a tumour of cancerous white blood cells in my chest, waiting like a ticking time bomb.
That evening, the fight felt too long, the pain too debilitating, and the end unreachable. I confessed to my friend that I wanted to give up. If they said “relapse”, then I’d say no to treatment. Being a warrior isn’t about constantly fighting, it’s about pushing yourself further than you think you can go. My July 2019 scan results showed that all the cancer in my body had been killed. There wasn’t a single cell left. I may be the sword, but it was the army behind me that wielded it.