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“No matter how hard the situation is right now, you can be sure of one thing: You will be stronger for it when it passes. Take heart in that!”
Lana is just 18 years old. In 2016 she was diagnosed with cancer just before her first A-Level exam at school. Her life was put on hold as she battled for her life and underwent treatment after treatment. She was told that she would not even live to see her 18th birthday.
An avid traveller from a young age, Lana’s travel plans were put on hold too. Now though, she is in recovery, and all that she has gone through has given her reason to reflect on life and her plans for the future.
Her love of travel has only grown stronger since her diagnosis, and she won’t let cancer stop her from seeing the world.
This Is Lana’s Story.
I am eighteen years old, and I’m from the tiny country of Northern Ireland.
At the moment, I am still in the recovery phase.
Cancer treatments are extremely harsh on your body, and it takes a long time to recover. I was diagnosed a few days before my first A-level exam- the exams you take to get into university in the United Kingdom. I was diagnosed just before my exams started, so while I was unable to continue on with my A-levels, all my peers got their grades and headed off to college!
I’m still working on catching up what I missed out on, but baby steps are still progress, and in September of 2017 I started back to school.
I’m glad to be moving forward!
It wasn’t something I really expected – you don’t look at a seventeen-year-old girl who has never been ill before, and think ‘They have cancer’.
Being diagnosed with cancer was a real shock for my family! Around April of 2016, I caught a cold that was going around, nothing strange about it – but while the rest of my cold symptoms went away, my cough didn’t.
It kept getting worse, and after about three weeks of no improvement, I made a doctor’s appointment, but it would be weeks before I would be seen. In that time, things got worse. One day I was sitting in Spanish class and I started having chest pain so terrible I thought I was having a heart attack! In fact, I know now that it was actually my lung collapsing.
I was excused, rushed to the doctors, given painkillers and an inhaler, and I was given a chest x-ray the next day. When the results came up on the computer screen, the two nurses who had been taking my x-ray called in all their colleagues, and soon all the nurses in the department were looking at my results. It didn’t take long before I was called into a small office and told that my lungs were “grossly abnormal”, and I needed to go to the ER immediately.
We went there, and they told me I had sever pneumonia – I was admitted for further testing. After a scan, they found that there was actually a 12cm (almost 5”) mass in my chest, and it had put so much pressure on my left lung that it had collapsed.
They told me I would have a biopsy of the mass done, and they also explained that they thought it was lymphoma – a type of cancer. But until the results came in from the biopsy, it wouldn’t be confirmed.
I had the biopsy done that night and was moved to the respiratory ward – I spent the next five days talking to other people in my ward, spending time with my family, dying my hair wacky colours in the hospital bathrooms, and doing whatever I could to take my mind off of things. On day four, they moved me to the haematology ward, and as I waved goodbye to the people in the respiratory ward I knew something was wrong.
A day later, they told me that, yes – I had a form of cancer called Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma, or DLBCL. This is a form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The doctors originally placed my cancer at stage III – Stage I has the best outlook, as it is less widespread, and stage IV has the worst outlook as it has become very widespread within the body. I was started onto urgent chemotherapy, though I had a PET scan not long after that revealed I was actually stage IV. We originally thought I had two tumours, but in actuality, I had six. They had gone into my organs, my bones, my lymphatic system, everywhere. Treatment became much more aggressive at that point.
A cancer diagnosis, for anyone, is pretty traumatic.
When I was first diagnosed, I strived to be positive – I wrote a blog about my cancer journey (which is now archived), in the hope of inspiring other patients and to help people who may be suffering as well. My life pretty much went into a standstill; I wasn’t able to go to school, so my friends all graduated without me. I couldn’t leave the house most of the time. I had 30 treatments – 6 R-CHOP chemotherapies, 6 intrathecal methotrexate chemotherapies, 15 doses of radiotherapy, and 3 methotrexate chemotherapies. R-CHOP was probably the hardest part. It’s what you imagine chemotherapy to be; You sit in a chair or a bed for six hours with an IV in your arm, and they keep an eye on you for side effects. You’re allowed to go home, but from days 7-10, your immune system becomes practically non-existent. A cold could become sepsis in the span of three hours. If you show any signs of an infection, you will be admitted to hospital urgently.
Unfortunately, during this time, I got lots of infections – I was in and out of hospital a lot of the time. I made the best of it, but it was difficult.
My plans had really been to finish school, move onto a university course I loved, and then travel – but that was all put on hold. Since then, I’ve had more time to reflect, and now I work for myself as an illustrator – so who knows what the future will hold for me.
My travels were put on hold. The year of my diagnosis, I had planned to go to Iceland, Zakynthos, and I had a Spanish exchange trip coming up with my school which would have been in Andalucía – but all of these were cancelled. I was unable to travel at all during my treatment, so everything was put on hold. That really was hard for me. When you’re confined to a hospital room so often, all you want to do is travel.
My family and I, on the other hand, grew closer through this journey. We are one another’s best support, and I couldn’t ask for anyone better than my parents or my brother.
Towards the end of my diagnosis, I was approached by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation offers children (under 18s) with life threatening illnesses a chance to do something they’ve always wanted to do.
Since. I was ten years old, I have been completely captivated by one country in particular: Iceland. My room, at the moment, is covered in Icelandic flags and souvenirs.
When I was fifteen, my dad took me to Iceland for three days to celebrate me finishing my GCSE exams. I had spent the years before struggling with depression and anxiety, and so it was a big accomplishment to get good grades in my important exams. I fell even deeper in love with the country of Iceland after that brief visit – and my wish, with the charity, was to go back there.
Before I visited Iceland in 2017, I went to Lanzarote in May – I celebrated my eighteenth birthday with champagne, fruit skewers, and lying on the beach at 4am looking at the stars. But then, in June of 2017, I went back to Iceland.
During my diagnosis, I spent a lot of time looking at travel blogs and articles – and Guide to Iceland was one of my favourites. I messaged them to tell them I loved their blogs, and they ended up sending me lots of wonderful gifts. So, when I went to Iceland, I walked to their office to thank them. And I was totally blown away to find out they were sending my family and I on a tour!
That day, we all piled into our rented car and went down to Vík, then we backtracked and stopped off at Sólheimajökull, the glacier we would be climbing for our tour. Due to my fatigue and my strength, I wasn’t able to climb the whole thing – but I did get to stand on top of it, breathe in the frigid air and look out over the landscape. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
Then, in July of 2017, I took a leap. I booked a flight to Norway and jetted off. Not to explore, as much as I went to see my best friend, who lives in Vestfold. We did explore the surrounding areas together, but for the most part, I remember that trip as quality time with her.
My latest trip was earlier this year, which kicked off my travel blog. My best friend and I headed off on a trip together and we ended up in Budapest, Hungary. I am home now, catching up on school work and my own business, but it was an experience I would do again in a heartbeat.
Travelling is something I have wanted to do since I was a child, and my parents never hear the end of it.
I’m always stopping to look at the special deals in travel agency windows or showing them pictures I found online – so my family have always known this is what I want to do. Of course, with the cancer and everything, travel became more complicated.
Few places will insure me, so when I do find somewhere that will cover the costs of my health insurance, it takes a chunk out of your pocket. But, it’s not something I would travel without, so I always fork out for it. I think that makes my parents feel better, that if something was to happen, I would be covered.
I have a fascination with islands, for some reason – Iceland, the Azores, but especially the South Pacific. The islands in the South Pacific are a dream of mine; I have even attempted to start learning Samoan (although with limited resources, its difficult). I think it’s because the climate there is so different to the climate I’m used to; I would love to see the nature and meet the people. I want to experience something new, and something that, to me, is quite surreal.
The future is something I used to plan for a lot.
I used to sit up at night planning for how I wanted to do things, what time, what age I was to be – but after being diagnosed with such a serious illness, I’ve realised that I don’t want to plan it.
I don’t want to be on a schedule.
I want to take things at my pace and lead the life I choose.
I want to travel as much as I can, make as many memories as possible, and live a life that makes me feel fulfilled.
My future isn’t guaranteed. This is a sad fact, but I have to be realistic; I could relapse any day. My risk of relapse is, unfortunately, higher than most.
I hope it will never happen, but it might. And if it does, I won’t be able to travel – so I am going to do as much as I can, now, so that no matter what happens in the future, I’ll be happy.
The most insightful words I have are actually quite cliché: Life is too short.
When I was seventeen, they told me I would probably not survive until my eighteenth birthday.
When that happens, you’re faced with your own mortality – you realise that life really is so short.
No seventeen-year-old should have to think about who they want their possessions to go to if they pass away, or where they wanted to be buried or anything. I did – I thought of all of this. But the reality is, not just for me, but for all of us.
Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Nothing is guaranteed.
Life can really get in the way – so why wait? Why not go ahead, and do what you’ve always wanted to do? You might never get the chance again – so don’t let fear stop you when you do have the chance.
It can be incredibly frustrating to be unable to do what you want to do – you feel confined.
You have to sit there and watch as everything passes by you, and you can’t do what you want to do. It’s incredibly disheartening, and I understand that.
However – it is no reason to give up. Research, dream, and look forward to the future. Plan for when you can chase your dreams. Try to inspire other people with your passion.
The most important thing I can say is this: Positivity is very important. Again, cliché, but there is a true connection between emotional health and physical health. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t feel sad; Any way you feel is valid and healthy.
Try to find positives in everything. Not just for you, but for everyone – Tell your family or friends something you love about them. Compliment strangers. Appreciate the world around you. Everything has a purpose.
No matter how hard the situation is right now, you can be sure of one thing: You will be stronger for it when it passes. Take heart in that!
Interview And Article By Richard Collett
Thanks to Lana Douglas of Tiny Bug Travels for her story!
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