My Health Experience: ‘People who don’t know me do not realise I am sick’
Being really ill with cancer, but looking healthy, can make a harsh situation almost unbearable
Aoife Kavanagh at home in Greystones, Co Wicklow. “I have turned into a wheatgrass-shooting, veggie-juicing, food hippie.” Photographs: Cyril Byrne
I am 27 years old and I have cancer. It is a rare form that has spread to my liver and a bone in my spine. Before I was diagnosed I was fit and had almost qualified as a physiotherapist. I’ve been having treatment for a year, most of which has failed to produce the desired effect. When this type of cancer, ocular melanoma, has spread to the liver, life expectancy is poor.
I still look well. I have been conforming to a regime of organic food, no sugar, no alcohol and no caffeine for the past year. In the past few months I’ve further restricted my diet to no carbohydrates, no dairy and hardly any fruit. I have turned into a wheatgrass-shooting, veggie-juicing, food hippie. The funny thing is I look better and healthier than I did before my diagnosis. None of the treatments made me lose my hair. People who don’t know me do not realise I am sick. I have lost some weight, but most people would think this a good thing.
When I sit down in the oncology day ward for treatment, I normally get looks from other patients who expect it to be my mother having the chemo. One day I decided to ask her not to accompany me to my appointments any more. Many of the nurses who treat me are my age, and they talk to me as if I were a friend. Only once in the whole year did I see another patient my age getting treatment. Patients I talk to in the day ward generally think I am not “sick” sick. They say things like, “But you’re okay. You’re so young and fit looking.”
Nowadays, evolving cancer treatments mean that a lot of people diagnosed with cancer will be cured. The result is that there is an expectation that if you look well and if you are young, you will be cured. I have spent more time than I would have ever wished watching television this year and have noticed a trend of storylines in which people who have cancer go into remission.
Over-positivity is not just widespread in film and television series: Jennifer Saunders recently said on the Graham Norton Show, “It’s a process
. . . it’s a cure you go through when you have cancer.” The prevalence of positive cancer stories in the media is creating a distorted and confusing picture of cancer.
Of course it’s wonderful that many people are being cured nowadays, and that the media reflects this. These stories can be motivational and inspiring for cancer patients and their loved ones. For me, though, it’s an added pressure. I look well, and I am young. I fit the mould for the storyline of the girl who is cured. People expect you to get better – especially when you don’t have a “well-known” cancer. They ask questions like, “So when are you going to get back to your studies?” It is difficult because you don’t want to disappoint them.