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I was first diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma when I was just 15. I was meant to be a healthy teenager getting ready for my GCSEs but this was not the case. I can’t remember much from this point in time as I was so ill I spent most of the day and night sleeping. However, I do remember some things. I remember the gentle and kind nature of my consultant which will stay in my mind forever. He made me feel cared for and that I wasn’t ‘just a patient’. Although the news that I had cancer was difficult for me, it was also hard on my family. Because I was a child, my parents had to make the hard decisions for me and this must have been tough and difficult to cope with. It’s easy to forget that sometimes it’s not just the patient that suffers, but also the people closest to them. Thankfully, after my initial treatment, I started to get better and I was soon in remission.
But just before my eighteenth birthday, I found a lump. The cancer had come back. This was hard for me to digest, especially as I had my A Levels to concentrate on and I had never thought about the chance of the cancer coming back. I knew this time that the treatment would be more intense and I was at an age where I would have to make decisions by myself, which scared me. I remember worrying about losing my hair and being bald for my eighteenth birthday. Looking back, it seems insignificant, but at the time, my hair was my identity and, without it, people would know I had cancer. On top of this worry, I was told that I would be going to a new hospital to have treatment which wasn’t available at my local hospital. I was nervous about the change.
Before starting treatment, I had never even thought about the prospect of not being able to conceive. Thankfully, my sister did think about it and asked the doctors the big question: ‘Would treatment affect Alannah’s chances of conceiving?’ Because she thought of this, my eggs were saved. I didn’t know it yet, but this was crucial. Later in life I would find out that my menstrual cycle would stop and I would become unable to conceive naturally. I had chemotherapy over a period of months and after a nice, treatment-free Christmas with my family I had my own stem cells harvested and received a stem cell transplant. I was confined to isolation for four weeks while my immune system built itself up again. The treatment was successful but little did I know, the remission would again become short lived.
Four years went by and I was doing well. I had been with my boyfriend for a year, I was just about to go into my last year at university and my life was back on track. One night I felt a twinge in my neck. When I touched it I felt a lump the size of a golf ball. My boyfriend said it was probably nothing but I knew at that moment that my cancer had come back. I can’t explain the feeling of panic and devastation I felt, knowing that its return was serious. I thought I was done with treatment but the biopsy confirmed the reality that my cancer was back for a third time.
This time was different. I was a grown woman of 21, soon to be 22, and I knew I was to undergo the most intensive treatment of my life. I went through a strong course of chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant (this time using someone else's stem cells) and finished by having total body radiation. This was a big deal and much riskier than any of my previous treatment. Luckily, my brother was a match for the stem cell transplant and I was over the moon. My brother saved my life, and he does like to remind me about that from time to time!
Choosing these treatment options meant I was also giving up the chance to conceive naturally. Even though my eggs were stored, I wouldn’t be able to become a mum the natural way. But after many tears and talking things through, I realised that even though I wouldn’t be able to experience pregnancy naturally, didn't mean I couldn’t be a mum. I had faith that this treatment was the best option for me as without it I would not have the chance to live to do or be anything. The doctors, nurses, my family, my friends and partner were amazing. Without their support and love and my faith in God I would not have gotten through this relapse.
I'm not going to lie. There were days when I just wanted to give up as my body was being put through such a gruelling process. But I thought about the positives and I became determined to pull through. I wanted to get married, I wanted to see more of the world, I wanted to see my nieces and nephews get married and I wanted children of my own.
After a year of the toughest treatment I had ever received, I finished. I had taken on some of the most intensive treatment that they could throw at me and I came out on top. The people around me had got me through it. Nearly four years on and I am healthy and happy. I recently married the man who was there by my side every step of the way and I have seen more of our beautiful world.
My partner and I are currently making plans to start a family and I am going to continue to live my life to the fullest. I will never know for certain that I won’t get cancer again as some of the treatment I endured meant that it could come back in other areas, but I will not let that stop me living my life.
If I had any advice to give anyone going through a time like this, I would say stay positive, determined and make every moment count.