The following is a tale of survival. It has been my reality for approximately 2 years now, and it is as much physical as it is mental.
You’ll hear about the physical part first, followed by the mental implications it has brought with it.
I hope people find it insightful, if not inspiring. While it has been a devastating and humbling experience, it is undoubtedly an experience that has awoken something inside of me: A burning desire to squeeze the juice out of every minute of my existence, and a want to share that enthusiasm with other people.
I was 25, a Masters graduate from England, in the process of building my own clothing business. I was high on life, when something unexpected and weird happened – I went deaf in my right ear.
It was in the evening and I didn’t want to go to the local A&E, so I simply lay down and pressed the bottom of my ear to fully open it, and after a minute of trying, I was cured. My hearing went from half-deaf to perfect. What the fuck was that? I thought.
One week later, it happened again. This time my ingenious procedure was completely ineffective. After trying ear drops, I visited my doctor, who prescribed ear drops (the exact same ear drops). Weeks went by and I remained half deaf. All doctors were baffled.
It was thought that I had some kind of infection. Yet, what infection, no one knew. After two months, I began feeling a stabbing pain in my upper back, which began affecting my sleep. Then came a shocking sensation across my chest. My trips to my GP and A&E were in double figures. Now three months had gone by, with no diagnosis, and I began losing the use of my legs.
After a rapid decline over four months with no diagnosis, I sat in a side room in A&E, again. Waiting. This time, I was waiting on CT scan results. I was kept waiting for hours by the A&E doctors while they brought in a specialist to discern the scan. And then finally…
“The scan shows a lesion on the front of the brain. It is most likely cancer.”
OK…it was never going to be good news, I guess.
Being told that I had cancer was like being told that I’d won the lottery: This type of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to me.
One of the scary things about having cancer is that it can’t be treated until you find what type of cancer it is. The process took two long weeks, and, in that time, my body started shedding weight at a worrying speed, with 30 pounds disappearing, leaving my 5 foot 9 inch frame a skeletal 127 pounds.
The diagnosis was an A4 sheet of paper: Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Follicular lymphoma, spinal cord compression, pleural effusion – the list went on.
After beginning treatment in December, I had a long year ahead of me. By late January, I’d graduated from a wheelchair to a walking stick, and my hearing was finally restored. The treatment was a regimented six part dose of chemotherapy and steroids, along with Rituximab (a pretty effective cancer drug). On top of that I’d have three other doses of additional chemo, with the doctor apologetically explaining that these would be 24-hour sessions. The sheer amount of chemo required would destroy veins, so I had to get a teflon tube surgically installed into my chest. The process was straightforward, but exhausting.
Suicide occurred to me as a legitimate option, and while the butcher’s knife in my kitchen draw was tempting, I decided that I wouldn’t be able to go through with it. A knife to the heart would be way too dramatic an end, I somehow managed to convince myself. Besides, what if the treatment worked? And would I really be willing to put my parents through that? It also crossed my mind that the chemo was so depleting that it must have acted as a depressant. Eventually, I settled on the commitment to see the process through. A Winston Churchill quote came to mind, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” (he’s bloody good isn’t he?)
It was a grey existence. For six months, the only reason I’d leave the house would be for my weekly hospital visit. The haematology nurses would raise my spirits. They are some of the most loving, caring, battle-hardened women that you’d ever have the fortune to meet (they’ve seen it all, and are the masters at knowing what to say and when to say it).
Likewise, friends would visit sparingly, which would also raise my spirits, but after a while there wasn’t much to say.
Throughout the early going, I lacked the ability or desire to feel anything, mostly from exhaustion. I stopped listening to music altogether, because the slightest melody or lyric would leave me in tears. It was strictly podcasts, which were convenient one way conversations to distract me as I went about my business of doing barely anything, aside from waiting, to get better (or worse).
Luckily, through patience, persistence, as well as dumb luck, the scans started suggesting that things were going in the right direction. As the summer of 2016 descended upon us, I began to see signs of light, and life, at the end of the tunnel. July and August would be my final chemotherapy, which involved extracting some of my stem cells, a week of intense chemotherapy, and then having my stem cells pumped back into my system, so that my body could handle the strain of the chemo on my immune system. This was then followed by two weeks of dealing with the aftereffects (fever, vomiting, dizziness and boredom of being stuck in a hospital room).
And then, that was it. That pesky teflon tube was taken out of my chest leaving a decent scar, and I was given my checkup appointments and sent on my way.
Over time, the perpetual hungover feeling from the chemo was dissipating and my energy began to return, and while I was still considerably underweight and physically weak, I eventually felt like me again.
As 2016 bled into 2017, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of anxiety. It felt like I’d been released from prison and I, hopelessly, didn’t have a plan of what to do. That anxiety was induced by all kinds of questions. Am I really ‘better’? Will I ever feel 100% again? How the hell am I going to revive my career? The questions went on and on. I couldn’t help but compare my life to those around me. Everyone was finding love, getting jobs and promotions, buying houses, getting married, even having kids. Everyone was moving on.
I also underestimated my recovery, as I realised that the process of rehabilitation would be longer, and more uncertain than I initially thought. Despite all this, I came to a resolution: I would dedicate the entire year exclusively to rehabilitating my body, which would buy me time to figure out all of the other loose ends in my life. For the year ahead, my only objective was to work out once a day.
At first, what I considered a work out was fairly pathetic. I’d walk short distances without using a walking stick, first to the bottom of my street and back, then around the block, then to the park. I’d constantly push myself – every time I felt comfortable, I’d push myself to be uncomfortable. Soon I was jogging short distances, then I was buying a pull-up bar and some weights. By June I was running – everyday, rain or shine.
Of course, I still had anxiety, but I was working hard and seeing results, which counteracted the anxiety to some extent. But I found other ways of dealing with anxiety – purely, and serendipitously, by accident.
I had became obsessed with researching the subject of longevity, particularly ways in which to boost your immune system. Time and time again, I was amazed to see remedies that shared the connection between boosting immunity and reducing anxiety.
Firstly, early on in the year, I began taking cold showers – freezing cold showers, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. This technique isn’t for the faint of heart, but it works for me at least, and it’s now part of my daily ritual.
Secondly, I’ve found cannabidiol, or CBD oil, to be tremendously effective in curtailing anxiety. CBD oil is a non-psychoactive component of cannabis, and has a number of health benefits (I use this less often because it can be quite expensive, but I highly recommend trying it).
Last, but by no means least, holotropic breathing has been a life changing discovery for me, and it’s something I do before every workout, as well as before I go to bed.
So, what is it? It’s basically a breathing technique which pushes a large quantity of oxygen into your body and brain, leaving you with tingles and a euphoric head rush. The most popular, and easiest method has been popularised by an eccentric Dutch guy named Wim Hof, whose technique (see the video below) involves 25 deep breaths. The process is incredibly simple, but you’d be amazed at what pumping more oxygen to the brain can do for anxiety.
When I look to my future, I have plans to revive my business, but I still don’t see things clearly, yet the anxious fear and dread have been replaced with excitement. I am, after all, a work in progress, and no cloud lasts forever. By the end of the year I’ll be fully rehabilitated. 2018 is a blank canvas, and I’m ready to make up for lost time.