‘If I had known, I would’ve had a wank’: How my cancer diagnosis turned my life upside down

By Katie Mortimer

Published Nov 27, 2022 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

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If you Google “What is it like having cancer?” the majority of results that come up will include clinical help or media representations based on age-old stereotypes. In reality, cancer is the most cathartic mind-body interaction that I’ve ever experienced. I’m sure that’s problematic to read, but unless you’ve come up against the ‘c word’ yourself, I’d imagine your perception is slightly misconstrued.

On the one-time secular observance that was ‘Twosday’ I was hit with the ‘you have cancer’ potential death note. It was a form of leukaemia—a quickly progressive and aggressive form that required a cocktail of three chemotherapies and four five-week isolation periods. Lovely stuff.

The day I was diagnosed started off relatively tame in the grand scheme of things. My 8:45 am blood test was seldom significant to me, I had just assumed that I was suffering from a nasty case of the flu. Fast forward six hours, I was being spam-called by my general practitioner (GP). I’ll admit that I ignored the calls as I’m an inherently overly cautious gen Zer who won’t answer the phone if I don’t immediately recognise the number, but then, I was met with an email. An email from a GP? My anxiety shot through the roof.

Having just battled two years of the COVID-19 pandemic as a university student, I was no stranger to a heavily interrupted and mismanaged education. But cancer isolation completely stripped me of my social life. I was exploring a potential relationship with someone and felt as though I was at a relatively optimal time in my life, both friends and opportunities-wise.

Not only was my personality rapidly decaying, but so was my health. No one warns you about the mind-altering, self-depreciative, jaded, and utterly terrifying period you’re about to endure, only to be met with survivor’s guilt on the other side.

The treatment itself isn’t something that the media could ever exaggerate. Rather, it’s far beyond what many can comprehend. While friends partied and intoxicated their bodies with alcohol, I paralleled such poison in the form of involuntary consumption of cytotoxic drugs—which was later met with bouts of sepsis and the loss of my eyesight.

Despite being a long-term glasses wearer, nothing could’ve prepared me for the nasty wake-up call that was a loss of central peripheral vision—an issue that remained ignored for months. I could no longer read my phone screen (my one relief and saving grace through treatment) out of my left eye and was misled to believe that the sight would return.

Something that may seem forbidden to mention is that my libido almost disappeared. Unclear as to why that was, I sought an understanding of why I would be so deprived of such an innate desire. Most results stated that it was a combination of the higher doses’ side effects, yet I couldn’t help but think that I’m at the age where no sex would be the end of the world.

As the chief fly on the wall, it was almost toilsome observing my peer’s drinking habits. Whether it’s due to the insane strength of the chemo or the rapid acknowledgement that cancer is going to define and mature me, I don’t think I’ll ever drink again. The smell alone puts most off but having projectile vomited on a daily occurrence throughout my treatment, I couldn’t think of anything worse than putting more toxicant in my body.

22 was an incredibly griefful time to be diagnosed. I was mourning the life that I could’ve had and lamenting for my future all at the same time. Knowing that I’d be handing in my dissertation from the (dis)comforts of my tiny hospital room and watching my graduation via live stream, my outlook seemed pretty dire.

My life changed overnight, and not just in the medical sense. Friends, family, romances, work, studies—everything changed instantaneously. I fear that people don’t know how to act around the ‘c word’. Personally speaking, I also wouldn’t know what to do if one of my closest friends had told me they were just diagnosed with one of the most morbidly represented diseases in our history.

What leaves me bemused is the fact that one in two of us will develop cancer in our lifetime. That’s 50 per cent of the population, yet very few are consciously worried about it. Indeed, fears around the realities of cancer—prognosis, diagnosis, and treatment included—will ring true for most. However, until you reach that peak, the awareness and concern around the disease (in its multitude of forms) primarily interest those who’ve been affected by it, whether in/direct.

How much do you know about cancer? Of what you do know, how much of it is about the life-threatening side effects, the often-taboo symptoms, the treatment, and where would you start when trying to conceptualise and rationalise exactly what that person is going through? Few would have a conclusive answer, which is a wider-societal issue. Nonetheless, suppose you have been indirectly affected by cancer. In that case, you should be able to answer that question with enough clarity and reflection to account for how you responded to your experience.

Something I wished for, and currently advocate for, is the apprehension around cancer. We all rush to doctor Google in times of hypochondria, but we must look beyond the Aesculapian accounts of diseases and shift focus to a more pragmatic approach.

I refrain from accusing the current resources of being mendacious, but I’d definitely state that the representation of life with cancer is imperfect and somewhat marginalised. Even from starting my podcast and conversing with like-minded individuals, the realities of life with cancer prove to be a stark difference from that of what you can read online.

Similarly for me, I suppose expectedly, there has been a realisation around the lack of accurate discourse around life after treatment. When the wealth of your life has been shepherded by a team of medical professionals and oncology specialists, it’s almost impossible to visualise a life without around-the-clock care.

There is a range of unbelievably generous and educational charities available to us—even so, no one can prepare you for how you’re going to change. I remain bloody but unbowed, both figuratively and literally.

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