Why I wish I’d known the symptoms of blood cancer before I was diagnosed
Cerian had just turned 30 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma. For Blood Cancer Awareness Month, she explains why she wishes she, and her GP had been more aware of the symptoms of blood cancer.
It’s strange to think that I unwittingly carried my cancer for months. Perhaps even years. When those first few cells mutinied and mutated, I hadn’t a clue; I’d felt no symptoms, lacked any telltale swellings or pains. Yet there it was, growing and spreading; some sort of malevolent ship stowaway, hidden from view and conspiring to wreck the very vessel we both inhabited.
My eventual diagnosis, came following months of seemingly unconnected symptoms and being bounced from one specialist to another, labelled me as having Stage 4b Hodgkin lymphoma. So critical was my condition, with the cancer spread malignantly throughout my body, there wasn’t even time to perform fertility preservation; I was ushered into chemotherapy days after being diagnosed.
I spent a considerable amount of time berating myself; how could I have been so ignorant of the growing crisis? Didn’t I know my own body? I had several seemingly mild symptoms, but never for once thought they could be linked, let alone caused by cancer.
The symptoms I experienced included:
Persistent lethargy and fatigue
Turns out I’m not just a social flake, but that feeling exhausted and unable to do things is a common symptom of lymphoma.
If it weren’t for the back pain, I could have been in a much worse position. It was the symptom which finally persuaded me to pursue medical intervention and led to diagnosis (admittedly, months later!)
Itching (all over)
Some days I wanted to take a potato peeler to my legs and be done with it. Top tip – I bought an emollient cream and slathered myself in it three or four times a day to keep the itching at a tolerable level.
Getting ill easily
Seriously, I thought I was just unlucky because I seemed to catch all of the bugs that were going around. Turns out it wasn’t a biological talent – but that it was probably a symptom of my cancer!
This should have been quite a big red flag, but because I was always coming down with bugs, and because I’d never even considered the possibility of blood cancer, I put it down to yet another cold-like infection.
Early diagnosis has a huge effect on survival chances
In truth, I was being unkind to myself. It’s easy to look back and think ‘why didn’t I notice earlier?’ but the fact is that hindsight is 20/20 and when you’re actually living through even late-stage symptoms, they can feel totally unrelated and random. Don’t just take my word for it; a 2014 study showed that nearly half of all patients with cancer in England had their disease diagnosed after it had already reached an advanced stage.
Sadly, as we all know, early diagnosis can have a huge effect on survival chances, treatment intensity and length, as well as long term quality of life.
I am, for now, out of the woods. After five months of chemotherapy, I went into remission in January 2019. But that doesn’t mean it won’t come back, nor that I can let my guard down. I have to remain vigilant, as should everyone when it comes to their health and, specifically, to blood cancer.
What to do if you’re worried you have blood cancer
I hope no one related to my symptoms list but, if you did, don’t panic and please don’t ignore it. Yes, it can be scary to know you have symptoms which could be caused by underlying cancer. And in many cases there might be a less-serious underlying cause. But if it IS cancer, putting off going to a doctor can cost you precious time.
If you’ve been to the doctor before and felt they didn’t take you seriously, press on. Visit again with a list of what you want to talk about and what you want done. Take a friend or family member as an advocate. Or request a new GP who will listen to your concerns. You are not wasting their time, and you deserve to have your worries taken seriously by a professional. This is your life which we’re talking about, after all.
The good news is that there are many less scary causes for the symptoms I was experiencing; our bodies are always changing, after all. But it’s far better to know for sure. No deviation from your ‘normal’, whether on my list or not, should be brushed aside, especially if it’s lasted a long time or is getting worse. Even if it has nothing to do with cancer, the doctor can find out more about what’s going on and get it sorted.
Go on, make that GP appointment you’ve been putting off.
Read Cerian’s blog about her experience with cancer.