Happy Days Again: My Post-Treatment Cancer Journey

Ella Gwendolyn Jeffery

The first time I had a dressing change, I cried over what my life had become. Three weeks earlier I was healthy and doing all the things an 11-year-old should do—running, climbing, and swimming. Here I was now: fighting a disease that I knew nothing about, except for the fact that it ruins lives. It was ruining mine.

A nurse tried to comfort me by saying, “When this is all over, you’re going to be happy and healthy, and nothing’s going to ever bother you again!” I believed her wholeheartedly; I couldn’t bear to think of any other outcome.

My leukemia did go into remission; the bone marrow transplant cured me of my cancer for good, and I  became healthy again. Achieving happiness was a different story.

I returned to school full-time, less than a year after my diagnosis. School was what I had missed most during treatment, and I was expecting it to be fun. But on the first day of grade seven, I found myself in the bathroom having a panic attack. I was worried about germs and all the things that could make me sick. I was scared that my immune system wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Then there were my classmates. They had changed so much during the year I was away. I suppose I looked different too, but the difference in them seemed so sudden and was scary.

Some days I would be in a fog, remembering physical sensations of the pain I endured and fearing it would return. By mid-week I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I started faking being sick to get out of school early. My mother wasn’t fooled, but she didn’t say anything because she knew I was struggling—not physically or academically, but mentally. My world had almost ended, but I was expected to act like it had just kept turning.

That first year back at school, I began counselling with a wonderful therapist at Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital. It took dozens of sessions before I was even able to talk about my leukemia diagnosis, but my therapist remained patient until the day I was able to say, “On October 18th, 2014, I was diagnosed with cancer.” I was challenged to go through these memories, write them all out, and say to myself, “I was diagnosed with cancer, but it’s gone now. I won.”

When I was asked to write this story about a pivotal moment in my cancer journey, I wondered if it would count to write about the recovery after treatment. But then I realized, a huge portion of recovering from a traumatic event is the mental health process; accepting what has happened to you, and knowing that while your life has changed forever, you can still make happy, timeless memories.

In my opinion, the key to recovering mentally from an event like childhood cancer is to acknowledge what happened, express it in any way that you see fit, and then remind yourself of how hard you fought to beat the illness. After that first writing challenge in therapy, I began to write out every detail I remembered from treatment—thoughts, physical feelings, and descriptions all went into a series of journals. Even my memories of what I was wearing on a given day went into my writing! And, over this period, my fog went away. It took years, but more and more I was able to live in the moment with my friends and family, rather than being stuck remembering pain from the past. School became less of a trial and more of a pleasure.

Now I am in classes at my dream university, and I love the life I have created. There are still days where I feel sad about what happened to me. I don’t think you should come out of cancer thinking that nothing’s ever going to bother you again, but I do know that over time, things get better. To every childhood cancer warrior out there, know that you are strong in your battle, happy times do come, and no matter what, every day you are winning your fight!

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