"It felt insidious", one woman's experience with blood cancer
Head shave or cancer? That’s what I presumed people were thinking when I caught eyes
with them when I was bald. It was as if people wanted to make an assessment; are you well
or are you sick?
Now that my hair, my eyebrows, and lashes are back and I’m the same weight as I was pre-cancer, there’s nothing visible that remains to tell the story of the past few years. Sometimes it feels like ‘that time’ is a world away - a different lifetime.
Cancer had been a part of my life since 2017 when I found out I carried the BRCA1 gene mutation, putting me at a high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. After much deliberation, I elected to have a preventative double mastectomy following some suspicious biopsies - they came back negative but the stress of waiting for results was enough to secure my decision. This was life-changing, impossibly hard, but I felt assured that I had done everything in my power to not have the worry of getting cancer.
Ironically, 13 months after my mastectomy I was diagnosed with the blood cancer, Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, following a routine blood test.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind - fertility preservation treatment was attempted but I ran out of time before needing to start chemo. I underwent a multitude of scans and tests, and I carried on living as best I could in a ‘well’ world in a sick body. It felt insidious - there was no lump, no tumour, nothing tangible to see or feel. It was stemming from my bone marrow which had gone so wrong it was misfiring immature white blood cells into my bloodstream. I was told that chemo alone wouldn’t stop my cancer - I would need a stem cell transplant. I didn’t even know what this was, but soon learned I would need to find a donor; my own immune system would be wiped out and replaced with someone else’s.
This was a risky procedure, one that could kill me, but without it I would die from leukaemia within a number of months. My treatment was brutal, I spent two months in the hospital as my immune system wouldn’t be able to cope with the outside world. There were strong side effects and a 12-month recovery after my transplant. Assimilating back into the world then being hit with a global pandemic was a period of intense stress, but then one of growth and transformation.
For years I had wanted to complete my yoga teacher training, a practice I’d fallen in love with in my early 20s. Going through such a serious diagnosis changed my mindset - I felt like I was running out of time, and I couldn’t keep making excuses to hold myself back.
So, I celebrated my 1-year transplant anniversary, my ‘rebirthday’ on a yoga teacher training course. I knew what a powerful practice yoga and mindfulness could be, it had gotten me through the past few years. My body had become medicalised, it had betrayed me and was under attack - but yoga enabled me to reconnect both mind and body - and reclaim it as my own. It is still a constant practice, but I feel more in tune than ever. I now teach yoga full time, specialising in helping others with a cancer diagnosis reconnect with their bodies and minds after such an experience.
I still deal with many side effects from treatment, including the loss of my fertility. I am on hormone replacement therapy as I went through menopause at 30.
It’s hard not knowing what the future I’d imagined for myself will look like now. But I’ve focused on different projects - last year I attempted thru-hiking the Heysen Trail - a 1200km hike through South Australia to raise money for the Leukaemia Foundation.
I had to pull out after 800kms due to a sprained ankle but will be attempting it again this year.
The Leukaemia Foundation provided me with such great support through my journey and fundraising with events such as the World’s Greatest Shave can help them to help others and to achieve their goal of zero
lives lost to blood cancer by 2035. I hope that through teaching yoga I’m able to help as many people as possible going through cancer to come home to their bodies again - whatever stage in their journey they're at.
September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month. If you or someone you love is diagnosed with a blood cancer, please contact the Leukaemia Foundation’s dedicated blood cancer support line on 1800 620 420 or visit leukaemia.org.au
Or join the thousands of Australians impacted by blood cancer by participating in this year’s Light the Night event on Friday 30th September.
For more information and to register visit lightthenight.org.au