Leilani was only 20 years old when she first became aware that there might be something wrong.
One day, she felt a lump in her collarbone while at work. Leilani wasn’t sure what it was and she didn’t want to immediately assume it would be cancer... she was so young, she didn’t know anyone her age who had cancer, she thought “surely it can’t be?”. She only had a year or two before graduating uni and starting the next chapter of her life. But just in case, she went to the GP to get it checked.
More lumps began to appear and she needed a biopsy immediately. Leilani was then diagnosed with stage three lymphoma which had unfortunately spread from her lymph nodes near her right collarbone, to her shoulder and stomach.
"I didn’t immediately know what lymphoma was but the doctor explained it was cancer. Mum leaped right into action and asked all the questions, got the contacts of the best medical specialists, all while I was in shock processing my diagnosis. On the way home from the doctors, I tried to hold my tears in, but the tears started falling. I cried, but I tried to do it quietly, I was hoping no one would notice, I didn’t want to make the situation even more sad…" Leilani said.
" Then came the endless tests and hospital visits. It was incredibly hard, I was sad and scared, I’m sure my family was too, but they put on a brave face to make me feel better. There were a lot of unknowns. Would treatment work? What if it didn’t? And then the physical side effects… the chemo was draining, it made me feel so sick, I had needles stuck into my arms so many times that they collapsed so we had to use veins in my legs and hands.
I would wake up, chunks of hair would fall out, breakfast, medicine, cry, blood tests, seven hours of chemo via IV, immune system booster shot, repeat. That was now my life", she said.
Leilani had an amazing support system; her family, friends, doctors and nurses. Although her cancer experience was incredibly difficult, she tried to find and focus on the “good” moments of each day. Leilani remembers her dad shaving his head so she wouldn’t feel alone. Being confined to the hospital on her birthday meant her parents (being the only permitted visitors) would bring in birthday cakes for everyone, including the doctors and nurses!
Leilani said, "I remember a doctor running into my room to give me a birthday balloon. My friends sending gifts and flowers and the night shift nurses sneaking a birthday cupcake and card before they clocked off. The highlight was the seven nurses who came to my ward to sing happy birthday and give me a birthday present. My mum and dad were incredible, they were there for me every step of the way. They were at every blood test, sat by my side during the seven-hour long chemo sessions, slept in the uncomfortable chairs at the hospital and stayed strong even though I’m sure their hearts were breaking while watching me go through it all."
"I made a conscious decision to try and remain as strong and positive as possible through my battle with cancer, I couldn't afford to breakdown, I was worried if I did I wouldn't be able to get through it", said Leilani.
LEILANI'S CANTEEN JOURNEY
Leilani reached out to Canteen after treatment because she found that she wanted help to find her new normal. She was trying to process how to accept this new identity she now had as a cancer survivor.
"I was at a bit of a loss. I survived cancer, but now what? I can't just go back to being who I was before cancer and pretend this experience had never happened", she said.
Leilani’s assigned Canteen counsellor mentioned to her the support services that were available, including Canteen’s Education and Career Support Service (ECS). ECS helps young cancer patients aged 15 - 25 stay connected to study or work both during and after their cancer treatment.
Leilani said, “I think the ECS is one piece of the puzzle to helping you on that journey as a cancer patient or survivor. ECS helps young Aussies experiencing cancer discover a path forward, a path after diagnosis and cancer treatment, whether that’s keeping up with or taking a break from work or study, whether it’s a pathway involving a University degree or a TAFE course, whether it’s discovering a different career or helping you find steps in your current career or whether it’s finding something extra like a hobby or volunteering.”
Last year, around 200 young patients were supported through the ECS. Young cancer patients like Leilani are able to identify their vocational goals and values, followed by individualised support plans to help them achieve their education or career milestones.
Leilani said, "At one point in my post cancer journey, I felt quite lost, I thought that my values had shifted completely and after cancer, I felt this need to volunteer solely because I survived cancer and needed to ‘give back’.
However, during one of my ECS sessions, the counsellor looked at my resume and told me that I actually volunteered frequently for multiple years even before my cancer diagnosis.
ECS helps us rediscover aspects of ourselves from pre-cancer diagnosis that still exist as well as discover new aspects of ourselves and values post-cancer treatment.”
LEILANI’S MESSAGE TO YOU
"I would like to say a MASSIVE thank you to the supporters of Canteen. Because of you, all of us young people at Canteen are able to access the support services that we require. Because of you, we get to connect with other young people impacted by cancer and sometimes forget, even for just a day, all the hardships we are going through because of cancer. Because of your support and donations, I was able to find a purpose for my cancer experience where I could share my story to help other young people impacted by cancer and raise awareness for Canteen."