Sophie Mollan: my story

"Nobody ever expects to get diagnosed with cancer in your 20s." Sophie was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) at just 22 years old. We caught up with Sophie as she reflects on her diagnosis and shares her plans for the future.

My diagnosis

“All my life I’ve been healthy, I’ve never stayed in hospital, never needed to be on any medications long term and hardly ever visited the doctors. Going from a healthy 22-year-old to a cancer patient in a day was a big change, nobody ever expects to get diagnosed with cancer in your 20s.

I got the call just before my first night shift of university. I was told that my bloods were ‘very abnormal’ and that I had an appointment in haematology in 2 days – and to bring someone with me. Being a medical student, this rang alarm bells for bad news and I knew immediately I was getting a cancer diagnosis. I still went to my night shift, as I wanted to distract myself rather than worry. I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), a cancer I thought only older males get. Whilst I obviously found getting the diagnosis difficult – all I could think of was breaking the news to my mum, I knew it would be really hard for her to hear. It’s something I had never thought about before, nobody tells you how difficult it is to tell you family you’ve been diagnosed with cancer.”

Treatment

“After starting treatment, my main concern was whether I’d still be able to attend university – I was in my most important year and hadn’t long started placement which I was really enjoying. But over time, my priorities changed. I was getting home from placement and finding all I could do was lie in bed and sleep. I wasn’t able to see my friends or family, and my partner had to take up all the flat chores – I felt a bit useless; my illness had started to impact every part of my life. My drugs made me so nauseous and ill that I would be vomiting every night; I was so weak and exhausted I couldn’t walk far – never mind run like I used to. I knew my body could no longer cope with the long hours I was doing for my learning, and I knew I had to take a break from university. Fortunately, the university was very supportive with this and helped me make my decision.  

I’m treated with tablets called TKIs – which is kind of cool because I spent a whole year learning about targeted therapies like these! But it definitely isn’t a walk in the park. I started on imatinib which made me feel really unwell. I felt sick all the time, my body and face were puffy from the water retention, and I had unbearable fatigue. I’ve switched to dasatinib which has lifted my nausea almost entirely but I’m still struggling with the fatigue. Before the leukaemia, I was a runner, a hobby I picked up during COVID-19. Now, I struggle to walk half the length I used to be able to run. I really miss running.  

With CML, despite the treatment being less intense, there’s a potential I will be living with cancer and treatment my entire life – which is scary. How can I be a doctor and help other people feel better when I’m not well myself? For me, I found it difficult to allow myself to feel sad or upset at the side effects of having cancer. I knew I was going to be okay in the long run, so I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to complain about these side effects when they were relatively little compared to what other patients may be going through. But it’s important to remember that you are allowed to express those feelings and talk about what is upsetting you. Just because you may view it as being less than someone else’s experience doesn’t make it any less important. 

Treatment has also had a big impact on my body image. After gaining and losing water weight, I’ve found I’m struggling to keep up with the changes my body is going through, my clothes going from fitting to tight to baggy in a few months is a lot to keep up with, especially on a student budget. Between rashes on my arms and my hair falling out, it’s hard. I used to have this gorgeous, thick hair before it began falling out and I miss it.” 

Living with leukaemia

“Right now, I am in haematological and molecular remission – meaning my bloods and genetics are almost normal! I’m still on medication and will be for the foreseeable future. I find I’m able to do a bit more around the flat now to help my partner out and we go on walks pretty much every day together. I’ve been spending my time getting involved in different projects around CML and young people with cancer – joining research groups and I think we’ve all been able to accept my diagnosis a little more now.  

I think initially, I didn’t see myself as a cancer patient – I didn’t feel unwell enough, how could I have cancer? But the more appointments I went to and the more side effects I got, I had to accept that I was now a patient with leukaemia. The first few months, my head was swimming with information about my diagnosis, who do I need to tell and reassuring people I was going to be okay long term. It’s only now, 6 months down the line, do I feel I have space in my own head to think. I don’t think I’ve fully accepted the fact that I have cancer, but I’m just glad I’m able to feel a bit more like a normal 22-year-old again, even if I’ll never be the same as I was before.  

During my treatment, I’m so thankful I’ve had my partner there for me at every step. He takes me to every appointment, holds my hand during bloods (I know a medical student scared of needles?!), and listens to me when I’m feeling down. I’m really lucky to have someone by my side through it all and I’m so grateful it’s him. 

I’ve also been able to start focusing more on my hobbies that don’t rely on moving around – I crochet and cross stitch and they’ve been great hobbies to continue during my illness. I can take them with me to appointments or do them in bed if I’ve had a long day. I’ve also had more time to read which has been lovely. I read anything from thriller to non-fiction Greek Mythology – I think I’ve read close to 50 books this year! 

Spot Leukaemia is so important as, often, the initial symptoms of leukaemia are so difficult to spot. With me, I could have put my tiredness down to the fact that I was exercising more, or I was really busy with placement. Instead, I’m so glad I listened to my body telling me something was wrong, and I took the time to visit my GP. Because I did that, I was diagnosed within the first phase of CML and have a much better prognosis and treatment plan as a result. It’s so important to listen to what your body is saying, it’s better to be safe than sorry!”

Support services

If you or a loved one needs advice or support regarding your diagnosis, please get in touch. You can call our free helpline on 08088 010 444 and speak to one of our nurses. Alternatively, you can send a message to our team via WhatsApp on 07500 068 065 (services available Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm).

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