Whether you've been diagnosed, or you're hearing about a parent's or friend's illness, cancer really can affect anyone.
"When I joined Canteen, I started seeing other's experiences with cancer. It gave me hope that if they could get through it, I could too."
Daniel was 11 years old when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 2013 and passed away in 2018. By that stage, the cancer had spread to her lung, liver and bones.
Between 2013-2018, Daniel's mum dealt with consistent chemotherapy, radiation and medication. In roughly 2015, they found out that she was terminal and, from that point on, their approach shifted from eliminating cancer, to extending her life.
Daniel says that he "went from an 11-year-old to a 20-year-old in a few days." He also said that, growing up, the stress he felt over simple things was amplified and exaggerated by his mum's cancer. But, on the other hand, his stress management skills are now better than most.
Daniel's thoughts on the future didn't actually change that much with his mum's diagnosis. The new 'normal' involved regular doctor appointments and his mum going to hospital every second week — but his mum was still his normal mum. Even when they found out that she was terminal, Daniel says the thought of her dying didn't really enter his mind.
His moment of hope also revolved around joining Canteen. "I could see that there were people who were in such similar situations to me. But they were a little bit older, or their parents' cancer was a little further along and I could see where they were. Nothing changed for them — they were still a normal functioning person. The hope comes from learning from your own experience and then seeing other people's experience...If someone else can do it, I can do it."
Daniel first joined Canteen as a face-to-face member, but he's been involved with Canteen Connect — the online hub — pretty much since it launched. Without both of these services, Daniel couldn't imagine dealing with the palliative stages of his mum's cancer. The friends that he made there still form a crucial part of his support network today.
"When my nephew was born, we didn't know that he was going to be named David. Seeing him and knowing that his name was David [after my father], that was my moment."
Both Olivia's best friend and her dad died in 2018, succumbing to two different types of cancer. Her dad, David, was diagnosed in 2017 with lung cancer, when Olivia was 25 years old. A month later, Olivia's good friend, Gemma, was diagnosed with a rare form of melanoma cancer at the age of 24.
Olivia remembers Gemma as a force to be reckoned with. She had met Gemma while travelling around Europe — and when they both returned to Oz, their friendship didn't wane, despite the distance between their hometowns. Gemma was a fighter, someone who was filled with hope, someone who always made plans — despite doctors telling her that she wouldn't have a future.
Olivia's father was a man with a dark sense of humour, who managed to get Olivia laughing and smiling, even in the toughest of times.
Olivia has clear memories of both Gemma and her father. She remembers sitting with Gemma towards the end — talking about the future, listening to Gemma's plans and reminiscing about the days in Europe when they'd wake up after a big night and move straight onto the next one. For her dad, it's the smell of food wafting through the house, the music turned up loud.
Olivia is still grieving the loss of her loved ones. "You can be surrounded, in the happiest moment. But two seconds later, you get this sinking feeling...because you've lost someone."
It's little baby "Bean" (David's nickname) that pulls her through: "Seeing my nephew grow up now and the day that he was born — that was my moment of hope for the future".
"When I went to my first Canteen camp. After not knowing anyone else who had had the same cancer as me, I found two people who did."
Georgia was five years old when she was diagnosed with a pilocytic astrocytoma tumour in 2005. She had gone in for an eye appointment to help with a lazy eye and 24 hours later she was having brain surgery to remove a mass.
While the tumour hasn't grown in years, Georgia will never be able to say that she's fully in remission. Parts of the tumour are still there and she has to go for a scan every two years to check for growth.
After being diagnosed so young and having cancer be a defining factor for her entire life, Georgia dealt with the recovery journey with the help of her community and family — but, at times, she still felt alone. She originally grew up in a small town, where "cancer was for old people" which meant she found it hard to find someone she could relate to. Even after her medical experience had finished, she was still on a "journey of recovering from cancer and finding out who I am because of it". She has suffered from anxiety around the unknown, she worries about whether the tumour will start growing again and she thinks about whether or not her future children may one day be affected.
It wasn't until she joined Canteen in 2016 and then attended her first camp in 2018 that Georgia met two people who had the very same tumour she had. It was here that she was able to own it: "Yes, I had cancer. Yes, I survived it and yes, I'm okay".
Georgia sees Canteen, as well as Canteen Connect which she joined later on, as a driving force behind her recovery and as a way to build connections between herself, her story and to others. To Georgia, Canteen is more than sick kids: "It's a community and it's the support — it's the finding of a new lease on life and the learning of all these life skills."
"About a week after my final chemo, I went to routinely prepare for my next infusion, only to realise that I didn't have to go back. That's when I realised it was truly over."
Rikki was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2018 when she was 20 years old. While she finished treatment a year ago, she recently experienced a "hiccup". During a recent checkup, a growth on her sinus was noticed. When getting a biopsy of this growth, the surgeon decided to remove it and Rikki's artery was accidentally cut. This led to an eight-day hospital stay in April.
Due to COVID-19, this meant she wasn't allowed any visitors — which, for Rikki, seemed at times more mentally traumatic than the cancer. She says it's made her relieved that her cancer treatments were finished before lockdown started and that now she's "healthy, grateful and happy".
Rikki's treatment involved several rounds of chemotherapy and it was at this time that she was at her lowest point. At first, she didn't understand a lot of the medical jargon. And while she started doing IVF (to save her eggs for the future), she didn't know how physically intense the process was going to be. Chemo, for her, was the absolute worst.
Chemo comes with side effects, and as Rikki puts it, there's some trial and error in getting rid of the side effects. Plus, the medication used to treat these side effects also has side effects. According to Rikki, you're in a cycle where you're really sick for five days and just when you're starting to feel okay again, you go back to being sick. For Rikki, one of the side effects were mouth ulcers — that got so bad, she couldn't physically speak.
She lost hope when she didn't understand what the doctors were saying. For example, they told her that she would have to have four rounds of chemo, but every round of chemo meant three sessions. This meant that when Rikki thought she only had one more session left, she actually had nine. This, she says, was her lowest point.
But her moment of hope came quickly after. Each chemo treatment came easier than the last and she had concrete things to look forward to. She planned her 21st birthday while she was sick at home and, with help from her boyfriend, Rikki planned a trip driving from Paris to Switzerland (which they were later able to accomplish!).
One moment she went to check her calendar and simply realised that chemo wasn't a part of her life anymore.
"When I got the news that I could go home for the first time."
In 2009, Phoebe was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 10 years old. After a 6.5 hour long surgery to remove the tumour, which doctors originally thought was a cyst, and four rounds of really intense chemotherapy, Phoebe was officially declared in remission in 2013/2014.
She lost half of her reproductive system to the cancer and the other half is scarred. She knows that if she decides to have children in the future, it's going to be difficult and more dangerous. Phoebe had to learn things about her body that normal 10 year olds don't have to learn. She had to learn about her ovaries and what they could do, while also being told that they were being attacked by cancer.
She remembers asking the doctor if she was going to be okay. And she remembers her mum being emotional in the room with her. Cancer was such a huge part of her childhood — stating that it changed her in ways she never could have imagined.
For Phoebe though, her moment of hope was when the doctor told her she could travel home for the first time. Previously, she'd been stuck in Hobart with her mum, with the rest of her family driving the three-hour commute on the weekends. While the weekend visits were so special, making the drive home herself was even better.
She went into school and surprised her class — resulting in many squeals of excitement. Phoebe's class knew that she had been sick and they had sent her plenty of cards and notes while she was in hospital.
Having cancer has taught her not to take things for granted and to take every opportunity you can. "You've got to relish in the moment."
"When it taught me not to live in fear everyday of my life."
Rylee's nan first had cancer 20 years ago, when Rylee was seven. But in December 2014, when Rylee was 21, she was diagnosed with bowel, liver and lung cancer. Rylee's great aunt was also diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the same time.
When someone in your family is positive for ovarian and breast cancer, you can get tested for the mutated BRCA gene. Rylee's mother and uncle were positive, but her cousins were negative. When Rylee went to get tested at 22, she found out she was positive too for the mutated BRCA2 gene — meaning she's more likely to develop breast cancer at some point in the future.
When she found out, she was angry. "Why did I have someone in front of me telling me my entire future?" she remembers thinking. "They were telling me in my 30s to get checked for breast cancer, in my 40s to check for ovarian and I'm only in my early 20s."
Between 2016-2018 Rylee's nan was cancer free. However, since then the cancer has resurfaced in the lung, and she's been riding the wave ever since. However, Rylee's nan doesn't look at her life thinking she has cancer. She lives it to the fullest: She eats out with her friends, she gets tattoos on a whim — she's had part of her liver cut out twice, but she just keeps going.
Because of her nan's journey, Rylee co-produced and directed a web-series that dealt with a young person's breast cancer diagnosis. It helped her process the emotion of her nan's cancer coming back, because everyone on the project had some story or connection to cancer. As part of the story, the main character ticked things off her bucket list.
Rylee also has a bucket list and one of her items was to go swimming with sharks. She and her nan ticked that one off last year.
"When I finally, truly believed that my body would get me through this."
Jemma has only recently finished her treatment. In November 2019, when she was 23, she was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin's Lymphoma. She went through IVF, to save some of her eggs, before she started on four months of chemotherapy. She also went through a month of radiotherapy that ended in late May 2020.
COVID-19 restrictions impacted her radiotherapy. She wasn't allowed to bring anyone with her, making the experience even more anxiety-inducing. She counts herself lucky though, that throughout her chemotherapy, COVID lockdowns hadn't quite hit and she was allowed to bring friends and family to her treatments.
Even now, her body still isn't at the right level of strength and is still immunocompromised. She was extremely isolated for three months, not even seeing her partner for that time period.
In late December 2019 to early January 2020, she was admitted to hospital after contracting a lung infection. After this hospital visit, her oncologist told her that her white blood cells were extremely depleted. "That really freaked me out. It's really scary to think that my body is completely unable to fight off anything it might contract. I was really worried. I thought of the worst."
They had to give Jemma injections everyday to increase the levels of her white blood cells, but they weren't showing any response. "It felt like my body was betraying me. It was probably one of my lowest points." Around four days into the hospital stay, one of the doctors came in and told Jemma that finally the injections were starting to have an effect. "I remember just letting out the biggest release and I just cried. My body had gotten me through this, and if my body can get me through this, then I feel like I have a little more hope it can get me through the rest."
Jemma was driving home from the hospital the next day, thinking to herself, "A day and a half ago, you were at a point where you didn't think your body was going to respond, and you were so hopeless. And now look, you're on your way home and you're not attached to any machines."
Jemma's belief in her body and in herself, gave her the hope that chemo would be able to fight off the cancer cells. "My body had done me well."
"When I joined Canteen and I realised that I could learn to cope."
Neamh was 12 when her mother was diagnosed in 2013 with stomach cancer. Her mum told her and her sister that she had "a lump in my tummy", but Neamh was too young to understand what that meant — she thought her mum was pregnant.
The family went away for a holiday to South Africa and Hong Kong in 2014 and, while her parents knew it was bad, Neamh didn't. The family cut their trip short as her mother contracted a bladder infection and they didn't know if this meant the cancer had spread.
From January-March 2014, Neamh's mum was in and out of hospital. Before she passed, Neamh described her mum as "skin and bone...riddled with cancer." She was 13 when her mum passed.
A year later, Neamh joined Canteen. "If I hadn't joined, I never would have learnt to live with it. Even when I first went in and got the paperwork...It went from being something that I had no idea how to cope with, to something that I could learn about."
The funny thing is that Neamh's mum encouraged her to join Canteen. According to her, "you meet up with other kids after school and have milkshakes and talk." Neamh laughs as she tells the story: "I actually never had milkshakes — it's a lot more involved. It's nothing like that."
Neamh described that when her mum passed, she didn't really grieve. "I wasn't very family orientated, I didn't really appreciate my dad...I didn't really feel like I had much family support. And now, after joining Canteen...My dad and I are best friends. I went from someone who couldn't care less...to now you would not know that my dad and I weren't close."
For Neamh, Canteen was the support she needed to come out the other side and start looking at the future positively again.