I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007, when I was 20. I had moved to London from Italy a year earlier - I was attending university, I had just realised one of my dreams - it all seemed wonderful and new.
About a month before I moved to England, I had started losing weight and blood tests showed an infection. At the time it seemed like it wasn’t really anything to worry about - the plan was to go to England, so I went.
One day I noticed a huge spot on my elbow. It itched so much it drove me crazy. More started appearing on my legs and I used to scratch them so much they would bleed. I kept losing weight and sweating at night. That being my first year at university, I thought it could be a reaction to stress.
In December 2006 I went home to spend Christmas with my family. My flight back to London was booked for 12th January but on the morning of the 8th I felt a big lump while I was scratching my neck. I had had a very sore throat for the whole week, but that lump really shouldn't have been there. I told my mother who took me to see my uncle, a doctor. He touched the lump - I will never forget his eyes. He found lymph nodes under my armpits and told me to go to the hospital.
The checks took about a month. They found lymph nodes in my abdomen, neck, armpits and spleen. After endless blood tests and a PET scan, I was diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin lymphoma. My world collapsed - everything came to a brutal stop.
I started chemotherapy in St Orsola Hospital in Bologna. They told me I had to undergo six months of treatment. Out of that confusing period, I hold two very vivid memories. The first one is of my uncle the moment he told me what he found. I remembered thinking 'but if I go, who is going to watch movies with dad? There are way too many things I still have to do in this life!' They were not particularly philosophical thoughts. God knows why I thought about watching movies with my dad, but this is what happens.
The moment your life is threatened, your thoughts go to all the little things you would consider silly, all those things you took for granted. We spend our lives thinking things won't happen to us and then life shouts at you: look, I'm here! And it's in these moments you realise it. In that instant, those little moments became the most precious thing for me. That moment, through the shock that was so hard I couldn't even cry - and for a long time after that I couldn't - I had a very simple thought: I want to live. Please, let me live.
The second thought related to my physical appearance: I knew chemotherapy would change me and I had always had been quite attached to my long, curly hair. The doctor told me I would probably lose it and I thought 'well, I'll shave it off myself’. Nothing else mattered but fighting. Nothing else mattered but not seeing my relatives and family heartbroken. ‘You must do it, and you must do it for them. It'll be very hard for them, they will be so frightened’, I kept thinking. They kept me fighting.
One of the side effects of the treatment I felt the most was phlebitis - I've always had very small veins, which got burnt from the medicine. Nurses had a hard time looking for them and by the end of the therapy they were completely destroyed. They are still very weak and the medicines have hardened them. One day, some medicine accidentally spilt out of the vein. It was hell. I remember crying the whole night from the pain: it affected everything, muscles, bones. No pain killer would work. Dealing with that was particularly difficult, but the pain went after the end of the therapy.
I had my first PET scan after the first two cycles of the therapy and it had showed that the lymph nodes had disappeared. The final one was in July: complete remission. I think the first thing I did was going for a massive ice-cream in Bologna city centre.
For the first two years after the therapy I had PET scans every six months, then every year. I had my last one in May 2012. Negative, negative, negative. 'Very nice to meet you Miss Nardella, but we never want to see you again in this hospital!'
During those months I never stopped dreaming, making plans, finding ways of turning that painful experience into something beautiful. To turn the destruction into creation, to learn its lesson deeply and forever by turning that darkness into the most precious thought and memory: always remember, do not forget it, even for a second, of how important your life is.
I had a little dream, one among many. I had always been singing and playing music, and I was writing music at the time. The music I wrote inevitably fed on those dark moments and it turned into the album I am releasing this year. I made a solemn vow to myself: no matter how it goes, whatever happens, you will do your best to help the research that saved you to continue and save other people, save other dreams. I decided to donate part of the earnings from my music to Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. I hope to raise both awareness and funds, helping who will go through the same experience. They must always know that not only we can survive - we can be ALIVE again.
However painful, this experience made me who I am. All you long for when you fight against this enemy is to live again, doing all those simple, silly things you used to do. Being able to smile, not having to cover your skin from the sun. Be alive, every moment.
I was allowed a second life, and I will do my best to support the wonderful organizations which allow us, and our dreams, to be born again.
If you've recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and have yet to receive treatment you could be eligible to take part in a new clincial trial. Read more here.