Let me take you back to 2003 when I was 15 years old. I remember the day like it were yesterday. I felt a pea-like bump on my neck, saw my doctor about it, and then after a biopsy and some scans, I was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I barely knew what cancer was at the time and the crazy thing was I didn't feel sick and had no symptoms. I completed five rounds of chemotherapy, which meant about 45 overnight hospital stays. These nights in the hospital were mostly due to infections, which meant many sick nights with a lot of nausea and vomiting. I even had to have a couple of blood transfusions to help bring my blood counts back to normal. As luck would have it, this was all happening during the SARS epidemic. Remember that? I definitely do. Visitors (other than my parents) were not allowed to come see me, which really sucked. After chemo, I had three weeks of radiation treatment to my chest, neck and lung to destroy any lingering cells. Most of this journey is a blur because I was too sick to remember. What I do remember the most though, was the devastation of losing my long, thick, curly hair due to the chemotherapy treatment. At age 15, I really thought this was one of the worst things that could have ever happened to me.
I always struggled to share this experience with other people in my life that didn’t already know about it. I think one of the reasons was because I was ashamed and embarrassed to be diagnosed with cancer- crazy, right? At my high school, I'm pretty sure I was known as 'the girl that had cancer' instead of just being Vanessa, and I hated it. I didn't love my high school years too much. I was super shy, quiet and didn't have a lot of confidence. I know a lot of this had to do with my cancer diagnosis.
Since I had radiation to my chest at a young age to treat the Hodgkin’s, I was told that there was a possibility that I could develop breast cancer later in life. When I was told this at age 15, I didn't think too much about it and really didn't dwell on this possibility. Thankfully, after all was said and done, I got on with my life- went to university, became a teacher, got married. That naivete of youth was ultimately a blessing. I moved on with my life and I lived it the way I wanted to.
When I turned 25, I began yearly breast screening, which hurt like hell and I always dreaded it- but ultimately, this screening saved my life. In the summer of 2017, after my annual Mammogram and MRI, I received a phone call from the Breast Assessment Centre at the Juravinski Cancer Centre saying that I needed to come in for some more testing. After a few different tests, I was told by a few different medical staff that they couldn't see anything and it wasn’t very likely to be cancer. I felt some relief and was really hopeful that this was true. But to be honest, I had a bad feeling. Luckily, I had a doctor fight for a biopsy just to be sure the testing was correct and lo and behold, the results came back positive for Breast Cancer. The second I heard those words come out of my doctor's mouth, my body felt completely numb and my husband and I looked at each other and didn't have any words. I couldn’t feel any lumps or bumps in my breasts and I didn’t feel sick at all. Nothing could have prepared me for this cancer diagnosis, especially since this was now the second time hearing these awful words. I was in a state of shock and disbelief.
This diagnosis came just over a year after my husband and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary, and right before my 30th birthday. I always knew that I could be diagnosed with a secondary cancer, but never did I ever think it would be at such a young age. I always figured it could happen to mid-life 50 or 60 something me if it was going to happen. A cancer diagnosis at age 29 was definitely not a part of my plan. The next two years have literally been a roller coaster for my husband and I, and our close family and friends. There have been so many ups and downs. I’ve had four surgeries, four rounds of chemotherapy and 25 radiation treatments.
In the past I was always afraid to talk about the impact cancer has had on my life, but I'm no longer afraid. I am here to open up and share my journey with everyone. This is my story and I look forward to sharing it with you!