“What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present and hope for the future.” - Agnes M. Pharo
In the months before my diagnosis my sister Elsa and I decided to book a Christmas holiday away. We had been living in London for what felt like forever and with December approaching, we realized that our parents weren’t flying over, nor were we flying to Australia - we would be spending our first ever Christmas alone. To avoid being labelled “Aussie Orphans” we thought we’d enjoy a picturesque European city, spend the days drinking mulled wine at the Christmas markets and wake up on Christmas morning in a hotel hoping that “Santa” would find us.
As the yearend approached after my first Chemotherapy treatment in early December, the weather was getting colder and colder and it was apparent that I was getting sicker and sicker. Albeit my first round of chemotherapy feeling like hell, there were no serious side effects and thus my oncologist booked me in for my second round. Unfortunately it couldn’t have been worse timing as it fell on the 23rd of December, when I was supposed to be living it up in Brussels, Belgium.
At the time, I wish I could have made myself feel better about the situation by saying, “at least the chemotherapy is saving my life”, but the truth was, we had no idea if it was even working. This wasn’t like any other failed Christmas (like the time I was stranded in Abu Dhabi airport thanks to fog), where without a second thought I would usually have said, “ah at least there’s next year.” I simply did not have that luxury at the time, I was scared and facing what could have been my last ever Christmas. Instead of enjoying it, I would be injected with a drug that severely reduced my quality of life and may not have had any benefit.
Like many others in the holiday season, all I had to hold on to was hope. I had to make it a celebration of the 21 years that I had already lived and hope that against the odds, I could celebrate future Christmas’ to come.
In the lead up to my Christmas chemotherapy treatment, I celebrated the festive season like most Londoners. I went to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, hung out in the city pubs with co-workers, admired the Tiffany & Co Christmas tree at the Royal Exchange and present shopped with the crowds in Oxford Street. I was genuinely quite happy during this time, I made it my mission to celebrate and not to dwell on my fears. This was of course easier said than done.
As I hopped into bed on chemo-eve, I was sleepless. After only one round of chemotherapy I had already developed a dreaded anxiety towards it. I would lie in bed unable to sleep and even feel physically sick with nerves well before the first needle even touched my skin. I feel that one day we will look back at chemotherapy as something archaic and perhaps even unethical. By trying to rid the cancer, we poison our entire body, weaken our immune systems and kill off healthy cells in the process. Worst of all, we put ourselves through this ordeal, at the most vulnerable and precious moments in life without any guarantee of it’s effectiveness. I hope that one day we will have much better treatment for all cancers.
In the early morning as I prepared for the day’s appointment, I made my sister and Mum join me in wearing daggy Christmas jumpers to make light of the situation. We enjoyed the warm and welcoming atmosphere at the hospital as I had bag after bag of chemicals infused into me. After a long few hours, we wished the nurses a Merry Christmas and made our way back home.
I remained relatively well until Christmas morning when the dreaded chemo haze kicked in. I become so unbelievably weak and tired, to the point that I could hardly move or talk to anyone and yet falling asleep seemed impossible. I would lie still for hours, I felt stiff like a corpse and my mind was numb. I would count the seconds in the minutes, the minutes in the hours and the hours in the days.
Sometimes I was lucky enough to almost feel comfortable, but it would always be short lived. I would get ‘spasms’ of muscle energy bursts. My mind and overall body would be still and stiff, but my leg muscles would tingle. I would continue to lie in bed but raise my legs up in the air and shake them to aid the tingling. However almost every time, it just wasn’t enough to relieve it. Frustrated, I would have to leave the comfortable spot that I had only just managed to create after hours of restlessness and go for a skip around the apartment to release the tingling sensation from my muscles. I would then, exhausted from the exercise, collapse back in to bed, but of course not be able to sleep. My family would try to speak to me and cheer me up, but I just couldn’t process my thoughts or take in what they were saying. I felt like I was going mad, like a prisoner locked up in solitary confinement, except I hadn’t committed any crime. I was simply unable to move and unable to connect with anyone.
It was a vicious battle of mind over matter. As soon as your physical being is under attack like this, your mind tries to follow suit. If your body is acting like it’s dying, how do you convince yourself that you’re not? My answer was love. I hated my chemo-haze existence so much that if I didn’t have anyone to love and leave behind, I probably wouldn’t have minded letting go. Instead I trudged on through my awful chemo-haze, hoping that I would feel better again and knowing that I owed it to my family and friends to go through whatever it took to stay alive.
At this point, I tried my best to stay positive and celebrate Christmas. My Mum cooked a beautiful roast lunch that I wish I had the proper appetite for and I received lovely presents that I wish I could have appreciated properly at the time. I even had the lovely surprise that my sister had been in touch with the Brussels Crowne Plaza (where we had prepaid our non refundable holiday) who kindly let us rearrange our holiday for when I was feeling better.
When my chemo-haze finally lifted and the relief that I was back to a somewhat normal state set in, I reverted my thinking to planning our Belgian holiday. As I was no longer allowed to fly due to treatment, my Mum agreed to drive us there. Weeks later, we spent our holiday eating Belgian chocolates and waffles, exploring cities for the first time, wishing for snow and enjoying what was left of the Christmas markets. It was such a precious gift to be feeling myself again and enjoying life with my loved ones.
As the holiday drew to a close and reality set back in, I regained my focus on fighting the disease. I was appreciative to have eventually celebrated Christmas in style and desperately hoped that I would be able to do the same in 2014. Although the year was coming to an end, my struggle was merely beginning. I had only two battles of chemotherapy under my belt, in what inevitably became a very long war.