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How Cancer Took Me To Death's Door and Made Me Fight For My Life by Eilidh Mackay

Content Warning: Discussion of Cancer, Near Death Experiences, Extended Hospital Stays and Medical Trauma.

My body was trying to tell me something was wrong and certainly unwanted. Cancer is something I never knew much about, and little did I know how big a part of my life it would become. Nothing could ever have prepared me for what came next!

I was admitted to Glasgow Royal Hospital for Children’s, Schiehallion Ward in 2016 when I was 14 years old. Shortly after being admitted, my Mum was given the devastating diagnosis that I had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) is a blood cancer which grows in your bone marrow and affects your white blood cells. Treatment for this specific Leukaemia takes 2 or 3 years, depending on gender and consists of several different forms of chemotherapy.

My reaction was this cannot be correct! When both my mum and consultant broke the news to me so many emotions raced through my body. He was wrong. It is not true. I am fine. The most prominent emotion I displayed was anger, especially towards my consultant, as he was the bearer of the bad news. I turned my face to the wall and would not look him in the eye. He spoke to my mum and would ask me questions, but my reply was… silence. I could not even bear to speak to him as I felt he had ruined my life by diagnosing me. I hated him! When I received my diagnosis, my body and mind definitely shut down. I went into denial about what was actually going on around me. I was only a child.

When I started chemotherapy, my initial treatment consisted of 4 weeks of intense treatment. By this point, I understood I was unwell and that I had a long road ahead of me, but still never wanted to admit that I was a cancer kid. I was so determined to be normal and stay… Eilidh. I refused to associate with other teenagers who had cancer as I believed I was not one of them, even when my hair began falling out from the chemotherapy. I stopped brushing and washing it due to the high risk of tearing it out. I left it in plaits, hoping that this would stop me from losing more than I already had, so I did not become the image of cancer.

No one could prepare my family and I for what was about to come next in my journey. I had an extremely negative reaction to the intense chemotherapy and was transferred to Intensive Care, where I was placed in an induced coma. I was unaware that I was fighting for my life, getting lifesaving surgery to have a stoma bag, repairing the damage that the treatment had caused. I was getting closer and closer to death's door. My body was attacked by infections and illnesses, which, proved extremely difficult to treat. When I was finally brought out of my induced coma, I woke up thinking it had been just one night’s sleep, but I couldn’t have been more wrong... All I could do was blink, and my new journey began of having to learn everything again. Cancer soon became the easy battle and, ironically in the short term, forgotten about.

Whilst in intensive care my mum could not stay overnight with me, so every night at roughly 11pm when she left, my nights became the scariest moments of my life. Due to the amount of drugs, I was on, I became easily confused, overwhelmed and had extremely intense hallucinations. I would look out the window and I could see my mum, I would shout her name over and over again, crying. Now I know it was a reflection of the nurses in my room. I believed that every night I could see her, but she could not hear me. My mum would phone every morning at 3am, and due to my tracheostomy, I was unable to speak. I would shout so loud inside that air would escape, and a crackle of my voice would come out when I was trying to tell her I loved her whilst sobbing down the line. Hearing her voice was enough to calm me down. She would then race back to my room every morning at 8am. At night when my dad and sister headed home, and the door closed behind my mum, I feared that I would never see them again. That my eyes would close and would not reopen, and my heart rate machine, instead of beeping, would make a monotone beeping drone. The hours between 11pm and 8am were the scariest hours of my life as I was so worried that in these hours, I would drift away and my family would not be there around me.

After a long and painful fight, my body was on the mend. The cancer at this point was treated with maintenance chemotherapy pills, meaning I could slowly return to my normal life. However, my life was not normal or what I knew as normal and was never going to be normal again. I returned home after spending a total of 338 days in hospital and tried to jump back into my old life, but I could not as I was different. Firstly, the cancer and secondly, the wheelchair. People had their opinions; some turned their backs on me, and others were over the top with sympathy. Both reactions were hard to digest as underneath these huge labels, I was still… Eilidh.

Fast forward to 2019, and I attended an appointment at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow at the ear, nose, and throat clinic. When I was in intensive care I was given a tracheostomy to help speed up the process of removing my ventilator. During this operation, my thyroid was said to be enlarged, and this appointment was to discuss this. My Mum and I were taken in to see the consultant, and his first words to me were “so the Thyroid Cancer…”.

Thyroid Cancer is most commonly a swelling or a visible lump in the neck region. Treatment for this cancer involves surgery to remove the tumour, and if the chances are high that the tumour was not fully removed or has affected different parts of the neck, further treatment involves isolation and radioactive iodine.

I could not believe it. At 17 years old, I had not one but two cancers?! The emotions flooded through me, and I just wanted to disappear. I was nearing the end of my leukaemia battle; how could this be happening again? It felt as if I was a dice roll away from getting to the finish line, but now I was back to square one, having to do it all again. I already understood this road that was being built ahead of me, and I felt so much fear because I did not want to die. Thankfully, the treatment was not as bad as I had anticipated. I completed my leukaemia treatment, and I went into hospital to have both my thyroid and the thyroid cancer removed. Knowing my track record, I thought I would end up stuck in hospital for maybe a few months at a push, but I went in on the Wednesday and got home on the Friday. Some might say a miracle, knowing my track record of hospital stays.

Cancer definitely created many memories some could be classed as nightmares. There have been many high highs and equally many low lows. Most of my days spent in hospital merged into one blurry Groundhog Day, and only the really good days and extremely bad days stay engraved in my mind.

One of my most valuable moments I experienced regarding my journey with cancer is the day I got to ring the bell. I decided I wanted to ring the bell once all my treatment for both cancers was completed, and I became officially cancer free. I kept knocking death's door, never knowing if I would even make it to this moment. I am just so grateful that death was not in on the days that I knocked! I remember the build up to it, inviting all my family and friends but also spreading the message around the hospital and wards I had been a patient in. I decided to write a speech to express the gratitude I felt towards everyone who supported me and cared for me in my battle with cancer. On the big day, I met all my family at the hospital and we headed up to the ward. Whilst going up in the elevator, it stopped on almost every floor and hospital staff started piling in as they were heading up to watch me ring the bell. By the time we got up to the ward and I saw the bell, my nerves definitely kicked in. The ward was almost half full of my family and so many incredible NHS staff from various wards. Taking time out of their shifts, some staff even came in on their day off, to witness this momentous occasion. When I looked, there were so many faces, some I recognised straight away, others I could not remember as I had been so unwell when they were treating me. Overall, I was so overwhelmed at the impact I had made on them and how they wanted to celebrate with me on this day. I was told that I was the first ever person to write a speech, which I could not believe. My consultant Nick recited the small poem next to the bell and handed it over to me. I rang the bell back and forth, and an uproar of cheering, clapping, and crying came from all around me. I had no clue what emotions I should display. I was overwhelmed with happiness. All I knew was that my smile was the biggest it had ever been.

About a month after finishing treatment, my mental health took a turn for the worse. Everyone classed me as ‘cured’ because the cancer was not running through my veins but mentally cancer was still controlling me. I forgot who Eilidh was as I was so used to being connected with cancer. I had to go on a journey of rediscovery and learn who I was without cancer. At present, I have decided to leave the door to my cancer life ajar, allowing me to pop back and remember the moments I want, but never staying. I continue to live in the present.

I will never forget my cancers but have now managed to take back control. Cancer has helped fuel me to rediscover who I now am and who I want to become, but never forgetting who I once was. I would never wish cancer upon anyone but I would not change either of my diagnosis’ now.

You can follow Eilidh on Instagram @eilidhmackay_x

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