I barely noticed it at first. A bump on the right side of my neck, small but definite. I was 22 and had no health issues (I’d never even broken a bone), so I didn’t think much of the lump. But my boyfriend was concerned, so I made an appointment to go to the GP.
For the next few months, I would see and feel more lumps spreading up my neck, and even larger ones under my armpits. I went to the doctor three times, where I was told: “It’s not cancer” and that I had “nothing to worry about”.
Finally, the doctor decided to do further blood tests and, later, referred me for a biopsy and scan. When I went with my mum and boyfriend to the hospital to receive the results, I’ll never forget the doctor’s opening line. “About the cancer…” And that was my diagnosis. Advanced stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma. He was unaware that we hadn’t been informed already and seemed almost as shocked as we were.
I remember my boyfriend shouted, “No!” straight away. He and my mum were in tears, but I reacted differently. Cancer was something I had to deal with, that I had to overcome.
It felt so surreal as we walked back through London Fields, but I made the decision there and then to call my friends and tell them about the diagnosis.
My band, Goat Girl, were working on our second album in the studio, so I called Rosy, our drummer, and asked them to share the news with the others. I felt bad passing on the burden because I thought it was my duty to give the bad news.
Two weeks after we completed the album, I went straight into an intensive six-month chemotherapy course, which meant we had to cancel all our touring plans and rehearsals.
On my first day of chemo, I remember the lift doors opening up on the adult floor, revealing all these people tethered to metal poles, connected by plastic tubes. With 50% of the population having cancer at some point in their life, this scene is more common than we like to think, but people’s reluctance to talk about it makes it a shocking spectacle when you see it.
I was on the teenage and young adult ward, even more shocking in its own way. On this floor I was the oldest person, and some of the other patients were barely out of primary school. Some had missing limbs (from amputation), some had bandages over one eye, but they were inspiringly resilient. So my perspective changed from “It’s not fair, I’m too young to have cancer” to “Fuck, these kids are far too young to have cancer!” I felt privileged to have had a few more years behind me and my heart ached for them.
While receiving the slow, poisonous drip for four hours, I’d start to feel increasingly listless and sick. My eyes would become sunken and lifeless, my mouth would fill with the flavour of the four chemotherapy chemicals used to treat Hodgkin lymphoma, secreting from my bloodstream to my tongue. My mind was wide awake, but my body, broken.
I was told that the chemo could cause permanent damage to my vital organs and had the potential to make me infertile. My mouth felt like it had a hundred papercuts, my periods stopped, food and water tasted bitter, like nail polish remover, and I had zero sexual interest. I had an open wound in my arm that contained a plastic tube connecting to the chemo pipe, which had to be redressed weekly, and that meant I had to wear a waterproof sleeve every time I showered. It made me feel sick just to look at that dressing on my arm.
It’s a very strange and unfathomable thing to be told you have stage four cancer with tumours in five different places in your body. Initially, I pictured these tumours almost as living creatures, separate from myself – parasites. However, after my first chemo session, I had a bath and found myself sending love and apologies to them. It just felt better to greet them with kindness rather than hostility, seeing as they were undeniably a part of me and I would be cohabiting with them for the next few months.
Throughout this treatment, an incredible close-knit group of friends and family would visit and keep me company. Yet still I felt extremely isolated in my experience – none of my peers (or family) fully understood what I was going through and it was a very lonely time.
But I was lucky in that it all worked. I recall driving home with my mum after my last chemotherapy session. I felt ill from the drugs yet somehow I never felt more alive. The Technicolor world outside the car looked trippily vivid; my view of life all the more beautiful.
Now, a little over a year later, as far as I’m aware, I’m cancer-free. Yet nothing will be the same again. Cancer has changed my outlook on the world regarding the people in my life, my identity and mortality.
I’m sure anyone who goes through something like this experiences a level of shock, no matter what age. But as a young person barely into my 20s, cancer presented me, for the very first time, with the fragility of life and the human body.
However, I’ve gained a lot through this shift in perspective. Now I feel I am no longer a facade. All my life, I felt as if I was living outside my body, but now I’m living inside it. Looking back, I kept busy to distract myself from the internal white noise. However, after my diagnosis, I was forced to slow down and tend to that noise – to make it my companion.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and panic attacks since I was about 17, but when I had to face cancer, my anxiety eased. Sure, I was scared to death of dying, but that was a tactile and justified fear while, in contrast, my panic attacks were the manifestation of imagined fears. During this time I regained my sense of humour – and it was darker than ever. I began remembering what I love and what makes me me. When you’re stripped of some parts of your identity, like pieces of glass on a sandy beach, the other parts start to shine with a striking luminosity.
Other aspects of my identity, however, have been shaken, leaving a vivid, inky stain on who and what I am, without any resemblance to the image that I used to hold of beauty. I used to wish for boobs the same size, for a curvier body and thicker hair. I took for granted having any hair at all. Now I just want the body I have to be healthy.
Most people struggle with physical self-confidence, but, if anything, I just wish people would be grateful for their health. I’d imagine that this fresh perspective is particularly rare in someone my age. For many of us, our teens and 20s are times characterised by image-consciousness. So I’m thankful that I’ve been exposed so intimately to my internal body, and who I am at my core.
I hope that I’ll approach ageing with more grace and appreciate my health over a few wrinkles or grey hairs. It’s normal to have bodily self-doubts. I’m guilty of them now, and probably always will be. However, I’ll always value my cancer-free body in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to before diagnosis.
Yet, to some degree, I feel the pressure of mortality every day. I put pressure on myself to be happy, to have a decent creative output, and to be healthy, because I know that one day it’s all going to end.
This overarching mortality has also changed the way I view time and write songs. Lyrically, a lot of my songs have gained seemingly gothic undertones, talking openly about death in both Goat Girl and my own music, Edna. I’ve also realised that the idea of aiming to live your “dream life” in five years is somewhat absurd because you really don’t know when it’s all going to end.
Through my experience of cancer, I learned that all that matters in life is love. I experienced an overflowing fountain of it from those who supported me, and from myself when I had to face the idea of death in solitary. It was love that made it bearable and it’s only love that matters to me now.
Goat Girl’s latest album, On All Fours, is out now on Rough Trade and the band will tour the UK in September (goatgirl.co.uk)