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Joanna's story

After finally making it to the end of her blood cancer treatment, Joanna entered an anxiety-ridden world. She explains how she's overcoming her fears, so that she can give her second chance at life its best shot.

Joanna, who is living with blood cancer, wearing a sun hat in a ruin, overlooking a headland and the sea.

After three years of chemotherapy, I finally made it to the end of treatment. It was time to celebrate and crack on with a ‘new normal’ life. I was finished and I was alive!

Well, that’s the theory. The reality turned out to be somewhat different. One week after a joint 50th with my husband (which was an absolute blast), I was being carted off in an ambulance after fainting in Epsom town centre.

Once more, I was back in the ‘Room of Doom’ in A&E, where three years earlier, I’d been diagnosed with leukaemia. The memories came flooding back. What followed was a series of tests, where I was given a ‘just in case’ dose of chemo.

Hey, I’d rung the end of treatment bell, what is going on?

After my shock diagnosis, it was easy to convince myself that I had a brain tumour or heart condition. Dr Google is a dangerous man!

A world of anxiety

In just two weeks, I tumbled into a whole new anxiety-ridden world. Test results showed nothing physically wrong with me. I’d simply done too much too soon. My brain had finally woken up to what I’d been through over the past three years.

No longer faced with having to ‘keep going’ to the next round of treatment, I had time to think – time to recall the horrors, time to reflect on how close I had come to dying.

The outside world expects cancer survivors to leap up from the sofa, write an amazing bucket list, and start gallivanting around the world ticking everything off.

In reality, a lot of cancer survivors experience mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. My diagnosis was something akin to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’d known that with fewer hospital appointments, there was a possibility I’d feel lost and isolated. But I hadn’t expected to feel this low.

Listening to my body

On top of that, my body had had enough. In my excitement to reach a second chance at life, my brain wasn’t listening to my body, which is why it quite literally shut itself down. The flashing images that preceded my faint was how it chose to do so – a very public smack in the face!

Anything beyond my house became too much. My vision would quickly go fuzzy round the edges. Anything more dramatic than ‘The Durrells’ on Netflix made me nervous.

Watching the news, doing a Tesco order, being in the kitchen, made me physically anxious. My heart raced, I got hot, I felt dizzy. I couldn’t look at anything with a busy pattern on it.

My husband wasn’t going to be wearing a checked shirt for a while!

I even got anxious about the spare bed being covered in my kids’ lego, which my mother-in-law would need to sleep in. Admittedly, not for another four months, but how on earth would we get it sorted in time?

A silver lining

A silver lining of having cancer is the support that comes with it. The Royal Marsden Hospital treated my anxiety with the same care as they had treated my cancer. With their encouragement, I went to Maggie’s at the Royal Marsden, where they listened to me cry for two hours about all sorts of ‘what ifs’.

I worried about things in the future and didn’t want to let people down. Everyone had spent the last three years telling me what an inspiration I was and how strong I was. Yet here I was, a gibbering wreck.

I also had a counsellor, who’s been with me throughout my journey. We worked out some simple strategies to stop me sinking any further. This, coupled with my own research, helped me to understand my anxiety and identify more coping strategies.

I was lucky that I could take time out. I really could stop. For a month I didn’t even cook!

Investing time recuperating was invaluable. It gave my body and my mind time to recover.

My second chance

I’m not cured, I still find busy places overwhelming. I still have to pace myself gently though life, but I have a structure where I can start to rebuild it. I have strategies to support me when things don’t go to plan.

My first trick was getting help early and being open about how I felt.

How many times, when asked, ‘how you are?’ have you replied ‘fine’, when actually you’re really struggling?

How often do you look on enviously at the seemingly perfect lives of your friends?

Our mind controls our body and it’s worth looking after, which is why the next trick is to keep going with all those strategies. That way I can give my second chance its best shot.

Rob, who has CML, makes a smoothie with a young family, placing fruit into a blender.

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