A Little More About My Story…
I’ve had a bit of a bumpy road getting to where I am now, but I’m delighted to say I am the happiest I’ve ever been and I’m filled with a renewed sense of purpose and drive to pursue my dreams. I’ve debated sharing this, as much of it I’ve kept to myself for a long time and it can be pretty scary putting it all out there for people to read. What made me decide to share this with you? Well, I decided I wanted my blog to be a true representation of who I am. And I know that without these challenging experiences I wouldn’t be this person I am now. So to me, it only makes sense to share with you the experiences that have lead me to where and who I now am. Let me tell you a bit more about my story.
As a kid I’d always been really athletic and thin, and I grew up participating in several sports including dance and swimming, but most notably horseback riding. When I started high school and puberty caught up with me I gained some weight. At first it didn’t bother me, but eventually I began comparing myself to others and feeling insecure and uncomfortable in my own skin. This led to me developing an eating disorder when I was 16, as well as depression. I struggled with this for about two years, before being placed on antidepressants.
Just as things were starting to look up, in February 2006 I got the shock of a life time. Let me rewind a bit here… I’d been having pain in my throat and gradually losing voice for about two years prior to this time. Though I’d visited the doctor many times as I knew something was wrong, it wasn’t until my condition became very serious that I was sent to see a specialist. I was 18 at this time and I went to see the ENT specialist Dr. Kevin Fung at Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario. After a CT scan and some extremely unpleasant biopsies, I was told that I had stage IV laryngeal cancer. A large malignant tumor had engulfed my voice box and the surrounding tissue, and if I didn’t get it removed soon, I was going to die in a few months! Being that I was so young and had never smoked, I’m sure you can imagine my shock (and horror) upon learning this news.
On March 2nd 2006 the tumor, along with my voice box, thyroid, and surround lymph nodes were permanently removed. While I recovered quickly from the surgery, after that came the worst part of all: six weeks of radiation treatment and three aggressive rounds of chemo. I could hardly eat even though I was starving, and was incredibly nauseous and violently ill following chemo. The radiation treatment caused burns inside my throat and mouth as well as outside on my neck. Fortunately, as it turns out I’m pretty darn resilient, so I survived.
Physically I recovered quickly, but emotionally and psychologically I was just getting started. After treatments and the dust settled and life began to go back to normal – whatever that was now – I fell to pieces. A part of me was literally missing, I only had a tiny whisper for a voice (and still do), and I didn’t know who I was anymore, or what I’d do with my life. For several years after this whole ordeal I remained a very depressed and anxious person, filled with anger. I saw the world as a cruel and unfair place and I had little hope for the future. Some days I remember wishing that I’d simply died so I didn’t have to go through this pain that consumed me; now I feel guilty having ever felt that way because I know I am so fortunate to be alive. Some days I came very close to giving up, but thank goodness for my stubborn and tenacious side, because it kept me going.
Fast forward a few years and I was starting to find my path. I’d met several wonderful people along the way, made new amazing friends, and in September 2011 I started at Brescia University College (an affiliate of Western University), which turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Here I met many wonderful people, and best of all was inspired and encouraged to pursue my interests. I pursued my undergraduate honors degree in Psychology, learned of my love for research, and graduated in June 2014.
Immediately after this I began pursing my master of science degree in Behavioural and Cognitive Neuroscience at Western University, which I completed in Fall 2016. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do after this. I had several ideas and plans and directions worth contemplating. However, I am a firm believe that life has a way of putting us on the path we are meant to be on and that certain people come into our lives for a reason.
After finishing my masters degree I stumbled onto the field of psychosocial oncology (PSO), which essentially addresses the psychological, social, and emotional aspects of cancer from diagnosis, through treatment, and survivorship. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard about this sooner! I quickly dove in (as I often do) and immersed myself in the literature, and getting involved with key organizations such as the Canadian Association for Psychosocial Oncology (CAPO). After learning of an upcoming CAPO conference in Vancouver in May 2017, I decided to register and go! This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. It was at the CAPO conference that I met some of the wonderful faculty in Psychosocial Oncology at the University of Calgary, and after some discussion I was invited to pursue my doctoral (PhD.) degree in Medical Science. By July 2017 I was driving half-way across Canada with my cat and my life packed into my car, ready to start a new and exciting adventure in Calgary!
Presently I am pursuing my PhD. under the supervision of Dr. Linda Carlson at the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine. Although I have a few areas of research interest, including behavioural intervention development and implementation, and knowledge translation, my primary PhD. research investigates the long-term effects of chemotherapy on gut microbiota, and how this relates to immune, metabolic, cognitive and psychological outcomes in young adult cancer survivors. Knowing what bacterial species are depleted after chemotherapy is crucial as our future studies can then aim to help patients by co-administering specific health promoting bacteria (i.e. probiotics), possibly preventing or reversing the psycho-behavioral, immune and metabolic deficits often seen following chemotherapy, ultimately leading to reduced symptom burden and improved quality of life for young cancer survivors.
So, it seems I have come full circle. First a cancer patient, then a survivor, navigating my own cancer journey, and now a psychosocial oncology researcher. It has been over a decade since my diagnosis, treatment, and the challenges that followed. I feel a sense of pride for overcoming many obstacles, and gratitude for having had the opportunity to do so. But, I am acutely aware of the need to continue to grow and to achieve my goals. For many years I wondered why I had survived cancer and what my purpose in life was; now I understand. I firmly believe that the reason I survived and endured such challenges was to prepare me for the opportunity to help others’ navigating the cancer journey.
Though we often do not get to decide what happens to use in life, we always have the opportunity to choose how we decide to respond to our circumstances. A quote that I love and which has become something of my mantra reads: “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become” – Carl Jung.
I’m grateful that you’ve decided to join me on my journey and I hope you enjoy the thoughts and experiences I’ll be sharing with you! 🙂