This month marks a very special occasion, my birthday. Not just any birthday: I turn thirty towards the end of the month. Although some people of my age may shudder at the thought of leaving their twenties behind, I am truly grateful to be able to experience the next decade. There were several points over the past few years when I did not think that I was going to make it. At one point my 25th birthday seemed unlikely to occur. Of course like most twenty-somethings, I am not going to pretend that it has been an easy ride; these have been the most challenging years of my life. Let us just say getting cancer wasn’t on my top of my ‘Top Things To Do Before I turn 30 list’, and as the years progress it is unlikely that life will get any easier. I was initially diagnosed with stage 4 Melanoma in 2010. Since then, I have had tumours removed from my lung and brain as well as two from my bowel. For the last two and half years I have also been the recipient of various different types of systemic treatment.
A diagnosis such as this means that I can never be cured. It is a case of having treatment to try and alleviate any symptoms and stay alive for as long as possible. I will never be cancer free. My family and friends have had such a significant impact on my recovery, as have the many extraordinary health care professionals who have kept me alive for so long. I believe one of the main reasons that I am here today is because of my positive attitude and that of other people around me.
In one sense I feel that although I am turning thirty, I am missing out on the whirlwind of mortgages, marriages and typical adulthood. I am not hitting any of traditional milestones expected at my age, I am certainly not the leader of the pack in that domain. Whilst my friends continue to be busy getting engaged, married or having children, I will be spending the first year of my thirties doing the same thing that I have been for the past six and a half years, fighting Melanoma.
I have my up and downs, there are times when I cannot help think about what could have been, and how my life might have played out, but the truth is I am just happy to be getting older at all. Having cancer means there is no pressure on me to achieve the same objectives as my peers. I have not been travelling or settled down, and I have zero money in savings, I do not work full time, but that is fine since I have cancer to deal with, which is a time consuming job in itself. One that nobody wants.
People have asked what my plans are for the big day, and whether I am going to throw a party to celebrate. The truth is that since my diagnosis I have not really been interested in drinking, dancing, late nights, crowds, loud music or close personal attention, so I do not think it is really for me. I was probably never a fan of those sort of events anyway, and fatigue is a huge issue, so at least having cancer gives me grounds for a good excuse rather than saying ‘it’s just not my thing’.
For me, there are some very different events that have been a cause for celebration, such as the development of new drugs that might help fight Melanoma, and in turn give me the opportunity for more candles on a birthday cake. It is often about the personal successes, such as getting my driving license back after being revoked on medical grounds, a quick recovery from major bowel surgery, or a stable PET CT scan result. It is not a midlife crisis that I am about to hit, in fact it is the opposite. According to headed hospital paper, I am doing really well and I hope that may continue well into my thirties. It might not be what the teenage version of me predicted, but I make do with what I have got.
As I have grown older I have realised that I need more help that ever before. When I go to hospital for treatment, I get upset and agitated and often regress about 15 years, turning into a stroppy teenager. At least I will always be remembered for being young at heart.
Until you have known what it is to stand at death’s door, and looked over your shoulder to visualise the past, you have not really experienced what it is like to really appreciate life.
It has been difficult to find the words to describe how grateful I am for the life I have been given. I am still here, and I hope for many more celebrations to come.
Don’t they say life begins at thirty?