“We found leukaemia cells.”
I was woefully unprepared for those words. It was 2007; I had a Samsung flip phone and no hopes of Googling “causes of anaemia” while I waited for bags of other people’s blood to drip through and tried to ignore the snores of the father of another patient. There hadn’t been much chance to chat with my family about what I might have, as I’d been admitted the evening before, given all the blood, had a bone marrow trephine and lumbar puncture the next morning, then spent the rest of the day sleeping off the general anaesthetic. When the doctor came to speak to me and my parents and took us to the nurses’ staff room to talk, I didn’t yet know that being taken somewhere private is code for bad news, so I went into that room with no sense of trepidation whatsoever. I came out with my life as I knew it completely changed.
I’ve told the story of the next few years so many times, I’m not going to now. It’s here, if you need the background.
Whenever I meet someone and inevitably have to tell them about my life, they almost always ask “Are you alright now? Are you better?” and I don’t know what to tell them. I tend to say “Well, I don’t have cancer anymore” because that’s the only answer that’s true. What is alright, or better? If we’re comparing my body before cancer to now, I used to be of a healthy weight but not mind, smoked, drank a lot, took drugs and was not a great person. Sure, I could walk around and do as I pleased, but I was a deeply unhappy sixteen year old and I’m not entirely sure I like the path I was headed down. One good thing getting diagnosed with cancer did was put a pause on my life; all my bad habits had to stop, I had to talk to my family, and become friends with my older sister, who became somewhat vital in the saving of my life. The vague ambitions I had for my future had to be put on hold while I considered what I was really equipped for, whether I was healthy or not. All my friends did their A-levels, went to university, moved out of our city to jobs and lives elsewhere. I still see some, but we are different people now and our lives don’t fit together the same way. The world is very different now too. When this all started, I couldn’t live-tweet my A&E trip because that concept didn’t exist – the only way I accessed the internet during my inpatient chemotherapy was through a dongle attached to my mum’s work laptop. Facebook still said “Kathryn Cartwright is…” for a status update. I wasn’t able to join the worldwide community that you now find if you start blogging about being ill. I didn’t know how much you could worry when a cancer friend you only know from Twitter goes quiet for more than a few days. I didn’t know I could care so much about how this country is run, that I would be the person worrying at night about how I might survive if things carry on the way they are, that it could be so scary to be really vulnerable. It is terrifying to become disabled overnight, when I used to feel so invincible.
But now I feel invincible in another way. I was given terrible odds, even to begin with – 20%, at the start. When I relapsed, they dropped to about 4%. When my liver failed, I had days to live by the time I got to transplant. What happened after that, I logically should not have survived. Nobody else has. I’ve had a pulmonary embolism, a collapsed lung, pneumonia, sepsis, a very persistent superbug called klebsiella, my bile ducts had to be reconstructed, I was told in 2013 that I needed another liver transplant but my lungs wouldn’t support me off the ventilator, so every infection since is my potential killer. People keep telling me I’m going to die and I still haven’t. People also keep telling me that I should bottle what I’m made of, because it’s strong stuff. And that I’m lucky. I think lucky is a relative term. I am lucky in that I have survived, but I am unlucky compared to some of my fellow patients who are living completely “normal” lives now, with no ill health to speak of. We are all better and worse off than people we could measure ourselves against. I choose not to really think about luck. Neither luck, nor cancer, nor any of the other things that keep getting thrown at me have made me the person that I am today, ten years later.
And what a decade it has been. I like this person. I have a great relationship with my family now, I love my friends, I actually give a damn about people other than myself and am doing things to make a difference. I love being able to work with Anthony Nolan, helping them by telling my story to people who matter and raising awareness about the work they do. I have a better understanding with my body, working with it, not against it, the way I have in the past. I am empowered by the things I can do, not discouraged by what I can’t. I try to use my experiences to inform other people who are going through them for the first time, navigating a system that can be tricky and unhelpful. I always wanted everyone to know my name but I never really knew what for. Now I think it’ll be fewer people, but I hope they’ll remember me for a more important reason. And I’m not done yet. I have books to read, things to make, shows to see, people to meet, words to say, wrongs to right. The last ten years have by no means been fun all of the time, but the highs when they come are beyond measure. I know it’s taken a long time to get here, but I feel like I am just getting started. Here’s to ten more.