Imagine yourself a vivacious young college student brimming with plans for a fairy tale future, then suddenly having your hopes and dreams transformed into a horror story when a monster called ‘Cancer’ rears its ugly head. This was the reality the Guardian’s Promotions Co-ordinator, Kristi-Ann Battersby faced just 18 months ago as a 20-year old student pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications in France.
Alone and away from her home and her family, Kristi-Ann sat in a hospital waiting room anxiously awaiting the results of tests performed in February 2011 to determine the cause of a large lump on the left side of her neck. Just two weeks earlier, she had visited her general practitioner (GP) for what she assumed was “a harmless fat gland” that was making it difficult for her fashion necklaces to fit. Alarmed at what he saw, her GP admitted Kristi-Ann immediately to France’s
Centre Hospitalier de Béziers for suspected Hodgkin Disease (Lymphoma), a cancer that invades the Reed-Sternberg cells of our lymphatic system, hindering its ability to filter out bacteria, viruses and unwanted substances.
Oblivious to what Hodgkin Disease was, cancer was the furthest thing from young Kristi-Ann’s mind.
“I had no family history of cancer. Cancer simply couldn’t affect me. Hearing ‘Hodgkin Disease’ meant nothing to me,” she explained. It never entered her mind that her recent weight loss, tendency to catch the flu, and increasing neck and lower back pains were cancer symptoms.
“I can relate every detail about that day I found out I had cancer,” the fashionably chic young woman revealed. “When my doctor told me, I cried like a baby. I was petrified; in shock and disbelief. I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do now? What the heck is going to happen?’ But after my doctor explained everything and introduced his medical team to me as ‘my new family’, I felt reassured. I trusted him completely. He said that he was that he was the captain of the ship, I was his passenger and that we were going on a bumpy ride together.”
The reality Kristi-Ann faced was a grueling and aggressive four-month chemotherapy and radiation regimen starting in April 2011 that would attack the Stage IV cancer cells invading her lymph glands throughout her body as well as her spleen and bone marrow system. With her mother by then in France bolstering her courage, Kristi-Ann faced the first of three four-week chemo cycles consisting of five days of continuous intravenous chemo, two weeks in a sterile hospital environment and a week back at her apartment which, she explained, her mother needed to constantly clean to guard against infection due to her daughter’s severely weakened immune system – a chemotherapy side effect along with complete hair loss, nausea and extreme weakness and fatigue.
This brave young woman steeled herself for the fight ahead with a personal ‘battle strategy’. “I went into warrior-mode and told myself, ‘Okay, I’m sick. The battle has begun. This is my reality and I’m going to make the best of it.’ I called my chemo sessions ‘summer camp’. I took books and games with me, went for strolls and made friends. I even draped my scarf around my IV infusion stand and nicknamed it ‘Giovanni, my Italian lover’.”
Although the young ‘cancer warrior’ became less enthusiastic with each successive chemo cycle and her month of radiation in July was, in her words, “a piece of cake compared to chemo”, Kristi’s greatest battle came when she completed treatment and the emotional turmoil of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a common occurrence with patients who have survived life-threatening illnesses – hit her. “Fitting back into the ‘real world’ after cancer isn’t easy. People think that because you’re cured, you should go back to normal. But it was so hard to fit back into life as a 20-year old. I had changed so much physically and emotionally. It was difficult to return to my old self. I asked myself, ‘Why am I alive? Why did I survive? What makes me so special?’ I had no more fight left in me. It was like a black hole.”
With antidepressants, a self-imposed therapy regimen of outdoor walks, meditation, art and music, and with her ever-supportive mother by her side, Kristi finally began to “see the sunshine again” when she returned to Trinidad for two months with her mother in December last year where the love and support of her father and two older sisters and ‘playing mas’ gradually improved her spirits. When asked what advice she had for other cancer victims, she replied, “Clichés are clichés for a reason. If it can happen to me it can happen to you. Slow down and listen to your body.”
With an increasing awareness of spirituality and wisdom beyond her years, the 22-year old ‘cancer warrior’ now on sabbatical from her Masters Degree in Communication and employed with us at the Guardian, closed with this: “I believe that cancer is like the dragon that shakes you awake from oblivion. In life we all have lessons to learn but because we don’t slow down and take time to listen, we don’t learn. It’s only when the ‘big stuff hits us – like death or cancer – that we realise we need to step back and reassess. “As young people on the go, we need to realise that we are human and there’s only so much we can do. We have to take care of our bodies. We need to learn to be kind to ourselves.”