I I barely noticed it at first. A lump on the right side of my neck, small but defined. I was 22 years old and had no health problems (I had never broken a bone), so I didn’t think much about the lump. But my boyfriend was worried, so I made an appointment to go to the GP.
Over the next several months, I would see and feel more lumps spreading across my neck, and even larger ones under my armpits. I went to the doctor three times, where they told me: “It is not cancer” and that I had “nothing to worry about”.
Eventually the doctor decided to do more blood tests and later referred me for a biopsy and scan. When I went with my mother and boyfriend to the hospital to receive the results, I will never forget the first line of the doctor. “About cancer …” And that was my diagnosis. Stage 4 advanced Hodgkin lymphoma. He didn’t know we hadn’t been told yet and he seemed almost as shocked as we were.
I remember my boyfriend yelling, “No!” immediately. He and my mom were crying, but I reacted differently. Cancer was something that she had to deal with, that she had to overcome.
It felt so surreal as we walked back through London Fields, but I made the decision right there to call my friends and tell them about the diagnosis.
My band, Goat Girl, We were working on our second album in the studio, so I called Rosy, our drummer, and asked them to share the news with others. I felt bad conveying the load because I thought it was my duty to deliver the bad news.
Two weeks after we finished the album, I went straight into a six-month crash course in chemotherapy, which meant we had to cancel all of our tour and rehearsal plans.
On my first day of chemotherapy, I remember the elevator doors opening on the adult floor, revealing all of these people tied to metal posts, connected by plastic tubes. Given that 50% of the population has cancer at some point in their life, this scene is more common than we like to think, but people’s reluctance to talk about it makes for a shocking sight when you see it.
He was in the teen and young adult ward, even more shocking in his own way. On this floor I was the oldest person and some of the other patients had barely finished elementary school. Some were missing limbs (due to amputation), others had one eye covered with bandages, but they were incredibly tough. So my perspective changed from “It’s not fair, I’m too young to get cancer” to “Fuck, these kids are too young to get cancer!” I felt privileged to have had a few more years behind me and my heart ached for them.
As I received the slow, poisonous drip for four hours, I was beginning to feel more and more listless and ill. My eyes sank and went lifeless, my mouth filled with the taste of the four chemotherapy chemicals used to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which are secreted from my bloodstream to my tongue. My mind was wide awake, but my body, broken.
They told me that chemotherapy could cause permanent damage to my vital organs and had the potential to make me infertile. My mouth felt like it had a hundred paper cuts, my periods stopped, the food and water tasted bitter, like nail polish remover, and I had no sexual interest. I had an open wound on my arm that contained a plastic tube that connected to the chemotherapy tube, which had to be repaired weekly, and that meant I had to wear a waterproof sleeve every time I took a shower. I felt bad just looking at that bandage on my arm.
It is a very strange and unfathomable thing to be told that you have stage four cancer with tumors in five different places on your body. Initially, I envisioned these tumors almost as living creatures, separate from me: parasites. However, after my first chemotherapy session, I took a shower and found myself sending them love and apologies. It just felt better to greet them with kindness rather than hostility, as they were undoubtedly a part of me and I would be living with them for the next few months.
Throughout this treatment, an incredibly close-knit group of friends and family would visit and keep me company. However, I felt extremely isolated in my experience: none of my peers (or family) fully understood what I was going through and it was a very lonely moment.
But I was lucky that everything worked. I remember driving home to my mother after my last chemotherapy session. I felt bad about the drugs, but somehow I never felt more alive. The technicolor world outside the car looked wildly vivid; my vision of life is even more beautiful.
Now a little more a year later, to my knowledge, I have no cancer. However, nothing will ever be the same. Cancer has changed my view of the world regarding the people in my life, my identity, and my mortality.
I’m sure anyone who goes through something like this experiences a level of shock, regardless of age. But as a young person in my early 20s, cancer presented to me, for the first time, the fragility of life and the human body.
However, I have gained a lot from this change in perspective. Now I feel that I am no longer a facade. All my life I felt like I lived outside my body, but now I live inside it. Looking back, I kept busy to distract myself from internal white noise. However, after my diagnosis, I was forced to slow down and attend to that noise, to make it my partner.
I have struggled with anxiety and panic attacks since I was 17, but when I had to face cancer, my anxiety subsided. Sure, I was very afraid of dying, but that was a tactile and justified fear, whereas, on the contrary, my panic attacks were the manifestation of imaginary fears. During this time I regained my sense of humor, and it was darker than ever. I started to remember what I love and what makes me me. When some parts of your identity are stripped from you, like pieces of glass on a sandy beach, the other parts begin to glow with a surprising luminosity.
Other aspects of my identity, however, have been shaken, leaving a vivid, dark stain on who and what I am, without any resemblance to the image I used to have of beauty. I used to wish for the same size breasts, a curvier body, and thicker hair. I assumed he had hair. Now I just want the body to be healthy.
Most people struggle with physical self-confidence, but if anything, I just wish people were grateful for their health. I imagine this new perspective is particularly rare for someone my age. For many of us, our teens and 20s are times characterized by image awareness. So I am grateful to have been so intimately exposed to my inner body and who I am at my core.
I hope to approach aging more gracefully and appreciate my health for some wrinkles or gray hair. It is normal to have bodily doubts about yourself. I am guilty of them now, and probably always will be. However, I will always value my cancer-free body in a way that I could not have before diagnosis.
However, to some extent, I feel the pressure of mortality every day. I push myself to be happy, to have decent creative output, and to be healthy, because I know that one day it will all end.
This widespread mortality has also changed the way I view time and write songs. Lyrically, many of my songs have taken on a seemingly gothic undertone, speaking openly about death in both Goat Girl and my own music, Edna. I also realized that the idea of aspiring to live the “life of your dreams” in five years is something absurd because you really don’t know when it will all end.
Through my experience with cancer, I learned that all that matters in life is love. I experienced an overflowing source of her from those who supported me, and myself when I had to face the idea of dying alone. It was love that made it bearable and the only thing that matters to me now is love.
Goat Girl’s Latest Album On All Fours Is Now Available On Rough Trade and the band will tour the UK in September (goatgirl.co.uk)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism