Cancer. Before I even knew what it was.
As a nine year old girl I was completely innocent and naive to how quickly ones life can change forever but this was a lesson I was about to learn. Sure, I was only 9 but if you’d asked me then what I’d be when I was older I would have answered something to do with sport (or a vet). I won every running race, even beating the boys at times, I danced, I swam, played netball and I’d just begun to compete in track. I didn’t always win my races, I wasn’t some child prodigy but regardless I loved it and could have never seen myself giving it up. But I was about to learn that sometimes, we must give up things, even if we don’t want to. Completely out of our control, they’re given up for us.
It would only be fitting that the transition from my old life to my new one would be playing sports. One afternoon, outside with my sister, I thought it would be a great idea to show off and try to balance on a soccer ball. I successfully managed to get my sisters attention before I came crashing to the ground with a scream that alerted both my parents — and possibly the whole neighbourhood. My Mum quickly called the ambulance and my Dad scooped me up in his arms as I hugged my leg close to my chest unable to make any sudden movements.
I was immediately rushed to the hospital, a place I wasn’t planning on visiting and a place I certainly wasn’t ready to call home.
I was told I had fractured my femur bone, the strongest bone in the body. I had immediate surgery to fix the break, rods were placed in my leg to hold it together and I was in plaster up to my waist. Four months of rehabilitation followed but the excruciating pain never went away.
Something was not right, although I don’t think anyone suspected what was about to happen. Through intensive testing the doctors discovered a hideous tumour that had weakened my femur bone causing it to snap.
A tumour… cancer.
No one deserves to go through something like that but a child, that is simply cruel. But something I have since learnt is cancer, or any adversity for that matter, isn’t selective, it doesn’t happen to only bad people, in fact it too often seems to happen to the good people. And yes, that is not at all fair, but life is just as fair as it is unfair. Every mountain we are given, every obstacle we have to side step or battle through is a opportunity for us to grow, to learn, to fight, and boy was I about to fight.
As a nine year old girl, I should’ve been at school learning how to spell, learning to write, instead I was learning words such as Osteosarcoma. This is a cancer of the bone, a cancer that would undoubtably change my life.
From the day of my diagnosis things happened really quickly. I remember it was my big sisters birthday party the day I was admitted into hospital to begin chemotherapy, 25th July 2001. A day I should’ve been shoving my face with cake and celebrating all things Abby. We had a party in the morning, of which I remember nothing from, then we headed to the hospital. It was how I imagine going to hospital about to give birth and by that I don’t mean it was a happy celebration but the bags were packed, and I was, “checked in” as if it was secretly some 5 star hotel but the only star rating I would come to know was “on a scale of 1–10, how bad is your pain?”. A question I’d be asked daily. A question I’d too often answer with a number above my age.
I wish I could remember the specifics, the first chemo I had, the conversations I had, the way it all unfolded but to be honest it’s a year of my life that has all blurred into one. The significance of that first drip of chemo going in becomes insignificant after weeks and weeks of watching it drip from the bag to the tube to my body. The routine I’d previously come to know; wake up, school, sports practice, birthday parties on the weekends became something of a distant memory.
The days were taken minute by minute, hour by hour, never knowing what was coming next. From July 2001 through to March 2002 I underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 3 different times of chemo, one of them being the strongest chemo at it’s strongest dose. Countless surgical and non-surgical procedures. My new routine went something like; one week of chemo followed by two weeks off. This continued for months depending on my blood count and strength.
A day I remember clearly, which most cancer patients do, is the day I lost my hair. The realisation that before I even knew properly what cancer was, I had it. Usually this is the part where I’d like to say, “it’s nothing like the movies”, “I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to shave it off ruthlessly in front of the mirror” but actually, that’s pretty much how it happened. Over the course of a few weeks you start to look as if you’ve had a run-in with an angry hairdresser who’s mistaken the scissors for the razor and you’re left with a mixture of long hair and bald patches. Each morning I’d wake up to a new clump of hair on my pillow.
I decided that actually a head of no hair would look a lot better this patchiness. So a party was organised. Not the party I’d like to be attending as a 9 year old but any chance to bring happiness into a dark situation was greatly welcomed. Some close family friends came to the hospital, I faintly remember there being cake and music and clippers. & just like that, my hair was gone.
From there it all happened quickly; suddenly I weighed 18kgs, I had a feeding tube in my nose keeping me alive, a mouth full of ulcers, a chemo bag attached to my chest and pain that riddled my body. I could go on for days about the surgeries, procedures and side effects I faced but we’d end up with a story larger than the Harry Potter series so in an attempt to not create a book, lets just say, it is unimaginable.
Things got worse and worse, the chemotherapy wasn’t shrinking the cancer. My parents were then faced with a decision that no parent should every have to make. The only way to save my life was to risk a very rare surgery to amputate my leg. Due to the original break of my bone, the risk of the cancer having spread elsewhere was too high, I was not able to have a regular amputation, instead I had to undergo a Rotationplasty where the lower part of my limb would be rotated 180 degrees and attached at my hip. My foot and heel would now become my knee.
Being one of the first in New Zealand to undergo this surgery it was very hard to wrap my head around however, there wasn’t really another option. Especially if I wanted a chance at the active life I’d once lived and loved.
The day of the surgery came around and it is one day that I will never forget. As I was wheeled into the surgery room I was clenching my dads hands hysterically crying — scared of what was about to occur, scared of the unknown, scared of waking up without a part of myself; also scared of not waking up at all. I remember tears rolling down my face. The last thing I saw was my Dad smiling; his attempt to reassure me that everything was going to be ok. Again, I could write a book on strength and resilience which is something I have always been admired for, a trait that I’ve inherited directly from my parents. The 14 hour surgery was the longest day of their life but surprisingly, 4 hours post surgery we discovered the operation was successful. I had managed to move my foot/knee. This was one of many miracles that would surprise doctors as my new life progressed.
You’d think it would stop here, I’ve had chemo after chemo after chemo then they’ve taken the cancer away by amputating my leg but no, another 4 months of chemo was ahead of me. I’m not exactly sure why but I’m assuming it’s to make sure everything is gone. From what I recall, this was the hardest 4 months of my life, this was the closest I got to losing my battle.
Christmas Day 2001, two months after losing my leg, I remember stacks of presents around me, people dressing up trying to keep the christmas spirit alive. I was weak and I was redefining the word sick. Things had been bad before but nothing like this.
Somehow, I got through. I don’t remember a lot after that until my last chemo day. It’s a lot like the last day of school. Everyone is in exciting spirits, we’re packing up the room, all the nurses have made posters and cards, it’s a celebration like no other, this time, a happy celebration. I came home to “Welcome Home” signs and cake as if returning from an Overseas Adventure, and boy was it an adventure. But the adventure was only just beginning.
The first couple of years I took that strength and resilience to a whole new level. I remember the excitement when I was fitted for my prosthetic but reality began to hit as I learnt to walk. In my head it was like, ok, I have a new leg, lets do this but no, it was like, ok, I have a leg, and now I have to learn to use it. I hadn’t walked for over a year and of course learning to walk when your leg isn’t made of flesh and bone anymore and your old foot has become your knee takes a serious amount of adjustment but nothing was stopping me. The determination of a child is the most incredible thing in the world. Even now, at the age of 24, my strongest inspiration is that little girl. Without a care in the world, having just looked hell straight in the face, she pushed forward refusing to look back.
But I’d be lying if this ended with a “& the rest was history”. Reality began to set in as I think it does for us all as we become a teenager. I remember thinking, “man, I thought the cancer was the hard part, that was nothing”. It’s that moment when you think you’ve been climbing a mountain but you realise that was just the hill. The mountain is ahead.
I spent my adolescent years questioning everything, beating myself up, asking “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?”, I wanted so badly to be just like my friends. I didn’t want to walk down the street having people stare at me. For 8 years I never wore anything above my knee. I tried to hid my leg whenever possible. I don’t remember when I started to gain my confidence but I think you reach a point where you’re tired of beating yourself up. You get sick of letting the things you have no control over, have control over you and how you live your life. So I decided to try on being confident about my adversity. I started to rock my prosthetic. I’d always been open about what I’d be through but being physically confident about it was a whole new ball game. I began to feel so liberated. It was as if I could feel the weight of the burden I’d been carrying lift off my shoulders. And I never looked back. To think now that I used to let something that was beyond my control, control me, breaks my heart. Cancer had taken so much from me, I wasn’t prepared to let it take any more.
Life completely changed again when I began to realise the impact I could make on other peoples lives. I’d always been told, “Wow, you’re so inspiring, you’re so positive given everything you’ve been through”, but in my head I wondered, how else was I supposed to react, just sit a sulk for the next 80 years? I don’t think so!
15 years later, I am finally able to answer the question I tearfully asked myself, over and over again, “why me?”. Answer: I’ve been given this mountain simply to help show others how to climb theirs.
If I’d been given the opportunity a few years ago to undo everything I went through and lead a so called ‘normal’ life I would have jumped at the chance but now I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing. Sure, there’s times when having one leg is really, really hard, everyday I’m faced with huge challenges and every year brings a whole knew road to the journey but the pros by far outweigh the cons. The experiences I’ve gained and my appreciation for the beauty of life is something that I may not have learned until it was too late. Sometimes it takes going through something like I did to start to think that way, so I want to make it my mission to help others learn the lessons I learnt without them having to go through it. All of this talk of the “hustle”, this desire to live every second to the fullest by no way means you’re entitled to a happily ever after, an endless life, but it does mean that when the clock stops ticking, you have no regrets, you’ve lived a life you’re proud of.
The reality is, bad things happen to everyone, that’s life unfortunately but it is how we respond to them that creates each and every outcome. We have limited time here, each and every day, minute and second isn’t promised. We’ve got to learn to appreciate the things we have before time makes us appreciate the things we had. This life is fleeting, our time here is short so don’t spend it at war, especially not with yourself. The only way we can spread kindness to others is if we first offer that kindness to ourselves. I am beyond proud of the life I live because I fought so hard to have it. The best part is, my story is only just beginning.