Wednesday, 12 Aug 2020

Cancer taught me to accept my body

I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma at 18. After countless GP appointments and hospital visits, my first feeling was one of relief.

We finally knew what was wrong and I could be treated. It was only once the news properly sunk in that I realised what this meant – the risks of it not being treatable, harsh treatment and awful side effects.

I instantly thought of poor cancer patients you see on TV and realised, ‘that’s me’.

I had seven rounds of chemotherapy across six months, the side effects of which were terrible. Not only was I sick, weak and incredibly tired, I also became unrecognisable.

The identity I’d spent years shaping – my fashion sense, long hair and makeup – went out the window. I had no hair, no eyebrows and a body pumped with steroids.

While friends were dressing up for nights out, I was applying moisturiser to my bald head – oh, the glamour.

I tried to take control by getting a haircut so I didn’t have to watch my long hair fall out. I posted a selfie of my new look and received supportive comments like ‘you look lovely’ and ‘so brave’. But without the diagnosis news I know reactions would have been along the lines of ‘what on Earth has Emma done?’.

Nevertheless, comments of support did help.

I woke up one morning devastated to see clumps of hair on my pillow and the floor

I was surprisingly OK with cutting it short but once hair started falling out, that’s when it hit. Towards the start of treatment I experienced terrible side effects while at home so was admitted to my local hospital.

It was this stint at my local that made me appreciate being treated on the specialist Teenage Cancer Trust unit in London.

I woke up one morning devastated to see clumps of hair on my pillow and the floor. After not eating for days due to a mouth of ulcers, it felt like the rubbish icing on top of my crappy cake.

A cleaner came in and exclaimed: ‘where has all this hair come from?’ I was so embarrassed that I apologised for causing a mess. Looking back, I feel a fool for apologising. I was sorry – but for myself, not for their workload.

When I returned to the Teenage Cancer Trust unit, my youth support coordinator offered to shave off the last strands. I was sad to see it go but I was also relieved to no longer watch it fall out. As she turned off the razor with a smile and warmth in her eyes, she told me I looked beautiful and I thought ‘you absolute liar’.

While in hospital I was too tired to bother with my appearance so wore whatever I felt comfortable in. Having ballooned from steroid treatment, that usually meant baggy tops and tracksuit bottoms.

One day I travelled home on the train, absolutely exhausted after a cycle of chemo with the thought of bed at the forefront of my brain. It was halfway home that I realised I didn’t have my wig, had no makeup on and was dressed like a slob – a far cry from how I would normally present myself.

I wasn’t myself.

Whenever I was home and seeing friends, that’s when I’d put the effort into dressing up. I wore skirts and dresses, put makeup on and styled my wig.

I wanted to hang out as Emma – not the sick friend. These little things transported me back to feeling more like myself again.

If I could go back and do one thing, it would be to make more of an effort to look and feel like myself, especially while at the hospital. I let the treatment, the side effects and the tiredness take over and over time I became my illness.

Those moments when I took the time to dress up and put some make up on while at home was when I felt less like a cancer patient and more like the 19-year-old fashion-obsessed girl I really was.

But that’s me. To any teen going through chemo, I want to say: be sure to remember that your body is going through a tough time, your health and your well-being are the most important things.

Do not feel pressured into looking a certain way – if you want to put on makeup do it but if you don’t feel up to it, don’t. Don’t do these things for anyone other than yourself.

We live in a highly media saturated world, bombarded with what we should look like, how we should dress and what bodies we should have.

The thing to remember is that every person is different and instead of trying to shape ourselves to look like someone else, we should spend the time accepting our own bodies and embracing our own unique identities because that is what makes us, us.

I have been in remission since November 2013, so almost six years now. Being back in good health means everything to me.

It means I have the energy to do all the things I dreamed about doing while sat in hospital, it means I can live my life with a new perspective having realised just how valuable it is.

Having been through an illness at a young age has opened up my eyes to how precious time really is and I don’t want to waste any of it.

Emma backs Teenage Cancer Trust’s new #StillMe campaign, which is shining a light on the impact that cancer and treatment can have on young people’s body image, confidence, and self-esteem. For more information visit teenagecancertrust.org/stillme

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