Sarah McGrath

Sarah_McGrath - profileAge at Diagnosis: 21

Current Age (at time of profile): 22

Hometown

Dartmouth, NS

How did you find out you were sick? What events led to the diagnosis?

I had a cold for 2 months, which turned into a sinus infection. Literally the morning after my antibiotics was finished for the sinus infection I woke up with a swollen neck and chest pains. I thought; “great I have mono and it’s exam time”. I had class in the morning and it was let out early, so I thought “screw this I’m going to go over and see the nurse at campus medical clinic and hopefully she can tell me what the swollen neck and chest pains are about!” I saw the nurse and she was stumped, or at least told me she was. She sent me in to see the doctor who told me that it was probably some kind of infection and she wanted me to go to the emergency room and have it checked out. GREAT. This was exactly what I needed to go sit in the ER for hours so they can tell me I have mono.

I head home feeling like a bag of ass, call my roommate and ask for her car to go to the hospital. The ER nurse took a look at me and said Oh, this is strange, the doctor will want to see you right away I guess right away in ER talk is 4 hours. They sent me in for chest x-rays and I laid around in one of the hospital rooms for a while thinking nothing serious and that the worst thing would be I’d have to go on antibiotics and maybe have the fluid in my neck drained. But no. Eventually the doctor came back in and said This is going to be a bit scary to hear but on the chest x-ray we took it shows several large tumors in your neck and chest and we think it’s cancer.  He then went on talking about treating me right away and that I had to decide where I was going to have treatment in Nova Scotia, where my family lives, or in Sherbrooke, where I was attending school.

I was in total shock and just said You have to call my parents and explain, I didn’t know what to say, I just sat there and refused to cry. After the doctor finished talking to my parents we booked a flight for me for the next day to head back to Halifax.

What year was it? What was your age at the time?

It was in November of 2006 and I was 21 years old.

At what level of education were you at diagnosis?

I was in my 4th year of my undergraduate degree at Bishop’s University.

Do you work? I was the manager of the on campus convenience store @ Bishop’s.

What was your diagnosis?

Hodgkin’s disease, stage 2A.

What are your career goals?

Work internationally on environmental policies or marry rich!

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?

My roommate’s mother had recently died from ovarian cancer, and the first thing I though was “how do I tell her?” I felt numb and confused. I went to the hospital thinking I had mono, and came out with cancer. I didn’t know how far along it was or really anything about cancer except cancer equals death.

How did your family react?

There was a lot of confusion and a lot of denial until I got all my tests completed and found out what the treatments would be. This was the first time my family had ever dealt with anything like this. We took it one day at a time, got the treatment plan and went from there. We were very goal focused. Get this over with and move on!

How did your friends react?

I got a lot of presents, letters and emails! My friends were, and are, great. They all booked flights to come see me and didn’t treat me any different, because I wouldn’t let them. So what I had cancer that didn’t mean I was a different person. Cancer doesn’t kill your personality just makes you bald. I had a head shaving party and a ton of my friends shaved their head for me and with me.

What did your treatment consist of?

Medical Side: I had 4 rounds of ABVD chemotherapy and 17 days of radiation to my chest and neck (which has left me with a super attractive bald spot on the back of my head sometimes I let people rub it for good luck!)

EW. Thinking about chemo makes me want to vomit. I’d go in every Friday feeling good and then leave 8 hours later pale and sickly. I always brought a bunch of water and friends with me to hang out and I ended up ruining water for myself for a while. Sorry Dasani but our relationship is over.

I describe it as being trapped in a useless body for a few days. I couldn’t read, watch TV or do anything. I wandered around aimlessly for a few days or just lay in my bed and tried to sleep. When I was asleep it was great. But I was drinking so much water that I had to pee every 15 minutes!

Non-Medical Side: At first I was kind of curious to see what was going to happen with chemo but then not so much. I crashed halfway through. I hit a wall. I was lying in my bed thinking that if I went to sleep right now and didn’t wake up  I would be OK with that. That really freaked me out because I always thought I was stronger mentally than that. I refused to let myself fall asleep with that thought in mind. I had to say Sarah this will all be over soon. Radiation was a blast  I plowed through it with barely any side effects  my mouth got a little tender but nothing as bad as strep throat or chemo. I’ll take radiation any day over chemo!

In which hospital(s) were you treated?

Queen Elizabeth Health Science Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

What is your current medical status?

I’m currently in limbo. I finished treatment in May and I am currently waiting for the results of my 3 month check up (I feel fantastic and have no worries!)

How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually)?

I think I’m even more laid back. I am more solution oriented. When I have a problem I think OK what’s the solution? But really I don’t feel that different. I am still waiting for that big moment of clarity that you would think you’d get from having a life altering and life threatening disease. The way I see it is it’s life, and you can only control so much. My friend gave me great advice, Live your shitty life happy. I think that says it all. Life is what you make it. If you sit around and sulk about all the bad you will miss all the good.

What is/was the toughest part of your challenge?

The toughest part was having to have people feel sorry for me. I never felt sorry for myself so I would feel frustrated when complete strangers would look at me with pity in their eyes.

What is/was the best part of your challenge?

I like to throw people for a loop and say things like I can chug a beer and I beat cancer!

What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick?

Knowing that I had never given up on anything in my life and I refused to give up here. I looked at it as a challenge and thought that it could always be worse. I went in to treatments with the attitude that I was going to learn something from all of this. I’m still waiting to figure out what that is, but I know there’s something!

What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?

Live your shitty life happy.

What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now? How have they changed since before your diagnosis?

I like to tell people that I’m sitting on the whole experience. I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t feel much different, I feel that I am a stronger person than most both mentally and physically. I am able to note a bad day, deal with it and move on. I’m not worried about the small things like being late anymore. That’s who I am.  If I’m late I’m late what’s the big deal?

What are some (if there are any you know of) preventative measures that people can take to lower their risk of having an experience like yours?

I always ate healthy and exercised and they have no idea how I developed cancer. My theory is something environmental caused it but I don’t dwell on it. We’re only here for a short time so the way I see it is we better rock out while we still can.

Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?

I checked out a few of the cancer sites and blogged a couple times on planet cancer but the most therapeutic thing was hanging out with my friends and not talking about cancer. I spoke with a psychiatrist several times who helped me mentally prepare for some of the feelings I might have so if they do happen I will have the knowledge to realize what they are.

If you did not attend a support group, why?

I think now after cancer I would like to talk with other young adults who have gone through the same thing. During cancer I was too focused on getting better and I didn’t want to hear about other people who were sick.

How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer?

One of my chemo nurses gave me the website.

I think it’s [YACC] great, and if I ever get off work in the summer I am going to go to the retreat!!