Natalie has been fighting blood cancer for 10 years. Here's her story
"I have cancer". I never expected I would utter those words at age 21.
My name is Natalie Britt and 12 years ago I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia – a rare type of blood cancer for someone my age and a condition I live with today.
My life changing diagnosis came when I was completing my final exams for my university degree in Human Resources and Industrial Relations. Instead of sitting the exams with my peers, I was studying from my hospital bed at the Royal Prince Alfred in Sydney.
It all began when I had surgery for a routine procedure for endometriosis. Less than 24 hours after being discharged, my stitches started haemorrhaging. My Mum rushed me back to hospital where a blood test confirmed that my white blood cell count was 88,000 (normal white blood count is between 6,000-10,000). Doctors initially thought it was a post-op infection, but after medication showed no improvement, I had a bone marrow biopsy which sadly confirmed I had chronic myeloid leukaemia.
I was thrust into a world that I knew nothing about. I immediately started chemotherapy in the hope of decreasing the cancerous cells. It was torture. Nausea and aches and pains filled my body and I felt weak with endless headaches. I could no longer shower on my own and for someone who was so independent and self-sufficient, it felt humiliating.
Following chemotherapy, my specialist gave me two treatment options, to have a bone marrow transplant, which was a one in three chance of survival at that time, or go on the less invasive route which was a newer chemotherapy drug called Glivac.
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I began Glivac and have been taking it for the past twelve years. While I am extraordinarily lucky there is a drug available to keep my cancer in remission, it isn't a cure, and I live with severe side effects including bone pain, nausea, headaches, and fatigue. My ability to have children may also be compromised and will mean changing treatments and having to deal with various other side effects.
Undoubtedly, my mental health has also suffered as a result of my diagnosis. Initially I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact I had blood cancer, let alone that it was incurable. I was in denial, anger consumed me, and I slipped into complete sadness. It wasn’t for the longest time that I eventually accepted my diagnosis and instead of allowing my cancer to render my body and mind useless, I fought hard to find another way to achieve my dreams by focusing on my corporate career and my personal mental and physical health.
In the decade I've had blood cancer, I’ve worked incredibly hard and have held multiple global HR roles and won national HR awards. I am currently a HR Director and regularly guest speak at HR summits and forums across the country. I am hugely passionate about women in business and my focus now is to become a CEO and centre my work around the mental health space for employees on the premise that we often focus on looking after our bodies, but how many of us look after our minds as well.
Personally, looking after my own mind and body over these past 12 years has been instrumental in keeping a positive outlook on life. I have adopted a much more healthier lifestyle and whilst I’m still a sucker for chocolate and eating at beautiful restaurants, I opt for a whole food and vegetarian- based diet, while also incorporating strength and weight training into my day-to-day fitness regime, which includes walks along the beach.
In my spare time, I'm a volunteer for the Leukaemia Foundation, acting as a ‘blood buddy’ mentor
for newly diagnosed patients, and I'm a long-standing activist for Light the Night, where I've raised more than $10,000.
If my cancer has taught me anything, it's to not have any regrets in life because we truly don't know what tomorrow will bring. My focus on my physical and mental health remains a continuous battle, but I'm not letting it get in the way of my life.
It is my hope that one day there will be a cure for chronic myeloid leukaemia and I will be treatment free, but until then, I will continue to climb up the corporate ladder and be resilient in the challenges that I’m faced with. You never know if your worst day is someone’s best day.
September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month. If you or someone you love is diagnosed with a blood cancer, please reach out to the Leukaemia Foundation on 1800 620 420 or visit leukaemia.org.au
Or, join the tens of thousands of Australians impacted by blood cancer by participating in this year’s Light the Night event on Saturday 16 October. For more information and to register visit lightthenight.org.au