Marley Cameron - Survivor

Marley Cameron

Marley Cameron


Marley Cameron

A little bit about you

Name: Marley Cameron

Age: 23

City: Sudbury, ON

What was/is your diagnosis?
Thyroid cancer with lymphatic and muscle involvement.

What year was it? What was your age at the time?
I was first diagnosed in 2013 at 20-years-old. My recurrence was in 2015 at 22.

What is something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
I have built an amazing life with an amazing man. We both work very hard at what we do and I am so proud of what we have accomplished.

What is a top item on your life to do list?
I would love to travel!

What are your hobbies?
Knitting, painting, singing! I am also a volunteer with our local Nordic ski club and I love to be involved/working with their events.

 

Your diagnosis

What was your life like before your diagnosis?
Before my diagnosis, I was still quite young. I was in my first year of college, in a new relationship, and still trying to figure out who I was as a person and what I wanted out of life. I thought I had it all figured out—boy, was I wrong!

How did you find out you were sick? What led to your diagnosis?
I struggled for years with many typical signs of thyroid disease: inexplicable weight gain, headaches, a heavy and irregular menstrual cycle, acne, excess facial hair, etc.—all things that I pointed out to my family doctor EVERY TIME I saw him. No matter what I told him, he dismissed it as puberty and refused to test me, ignoring the fact that my entire family had a history of thyroid disease. He told me I needed to go on a diet and exercise more and I would feel better.

I was feeling worse and worse in pretty much every aspect of my health when I saw a nurse practitioner to refill a prescription. I asked her for her opinion on my weight (at the time I was a dancer and always ate very healthy so there was no reason for me to be as overweight as I was) and she had me go through all of my symptoms. She thought they sounded typical of thyroid disorders and felt my neck right then and there. Sure enough, my thyroid was swollen to twice its size and nodules could be felt just by touching it. I was sent for an ultrasound which showed several nodules on both lobes of the thyroid. A fine needle aspiration on the largest nodule was inconclusive and so the decision was made to remove the left half of my thyroid for further testing.

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
Disbelief, fear, and incomprehension leading up to the biopsy. I was reassured that chances were they were just harmless nodules, and because no one in my family with thyroid issues had cancer, it wasn’t something I really considered. I figured the tests were just a formality.

In which hospital were you treated?
Health Sciences North in Sudbury, ON.

What did your treatment consist of?
After the left side of my thyroid was removed, the results showed cancer in the tissue as well as the lymphnodes. They decided to remove the remaining lobe six weeks later.

Three months after that, I had my first round of Radioactive Iodine Therapy (essentially I had to deprive my body of iodine for two weeks before ingesting the radioactive iodine isotope-131. The lack of iodine in my system ensured that most-to-all of the RAI was absorbed and the thyroid cancer cells were destroyed). The RAI was tough on my system and it caused me to lose most of my sense of taste, dry mouth/eyes, a little hair loss around the neck, and other issues.

My scans and blood work were improving and my levels were dropping exactly as they should. I was eventually declared NED and upgraded to six month visits with ultrasounds and blood panels to monitor. On the second of my six-month visits, I had an alarming ultrasound. I had several small masses and one large mass on the thyroid bed. A contrast MRI concluded that the cancer had returned, but on the plus side, it also showed that it had not spread as far as my lungs and breast tissue.

Two weeks later I was in the operating room and scared shitless. I was told I had a 90 per cent chance of not having a voice when I woke up, and a 90 per cent chance of being intubated/trached. i woke up six-and-a-half hours later with no intubation and talking away!

While they were able to successfully able to avoid my vocal cords and windpipe cartilage they found that the cancer was much more aggressive than originally anticipated. They removed 75 lymphnodes and two muscle bands from the left side of my neck/chin, as well as the masses that were found on my thyroid bed. Nineteen lymphnodes and both muscle bands tested positive for cancer, as was the case with all of the masses themselves. This was the first time I recognized fear and concern from my medical team; they had never seen thyroid cancer spread this far in such a short amount of time—remember, I was clear just six months before—and they were unsure of where to go from here.

My case was presented before the review board and the original decision was to proceed with external beam radiation before visiting the idea of chemo or other methods of treatment. At the last minute, my oncologist decided to try one more round of RAI in an attempt to save me from the troubles of the radiation itself. Thankfully it was successful and I have been lucky enough to avoid further treatment.

What is your current medical status?
I am continuously monitored every three months and was declared NED once again on May 3, 2016, four days before I got married! (Best wedding gift ever!)

 

Life after cancer

How is life different for you now post-diagnosis?
Physically, it has been rough. Having my thyroid removed and beginning synthetic thyroid hormones has caused me to rapidly gain over 70 pounds and it feels like crap. Every aspect of my body has changed, weight, skin, hair etc. Emotionally it was even rougher. The mental aspect of cancer has really kicked my butt. Socially, I lost pretty much all of my friends. It was too hard for my friends to understand what I was going through and I couldn’t keep up with the social life they wanted me to.

There were also a few weeks post diagnosis when the word had spread and all of a sudden I had people coming out of the woodwork who I hadn’t heard from in years! That was probably the most aggravating part.

Spiritually, I still don’t know. I was not raised in a religious household and had always envied the faith that some people had. I thought that going to church would help me to understand why this was all happening, but all it did was confuse me more. if God(s?) were so great, why did he (she?) allow this to happen to me? What had I done to deserve this? I chose not to return to church and instead I decided to explore my spiritually on my own. I still have no idea what I believe in, but I am open to pretty much every idea!

What is the toughest part about having cancer as a young adult?
Not having the resources available to me that other cancer patients did. Our cancer center only offered three support groups: Youth (which I was too old to attend), women’s (which was only for breast cancer patients), and men’s (which I didn’t belong to for obvious reasons).

I requested support from a social worker through the hospital and the referral was never followed through. I completed and submitted all of the necessary forms and never received a call/appointment, so I gave up trying.

A friend told me about a program offered through the local mental health clinic; it was geared towards people who needed help dealing and managing emotions and depression. I was in a pretty good woe-is-me funk, so I decided to give it a shot. I was turned away after filling out the application questionnaire because I was not suicidal and could (theoretically) access the resources I needed through the cancer center. That was a pretty big blow to me. if I didn’t belong with the cancer patients and I didn’t belong with the mental health team then where did I belong and where else could I go?!

What really helped you keep going while you were sick?
My husband was—and continues to be—an amazing support to me. Considering we had only been dating for less than a year when I was diagnosed, he was a trooper! He stuck with me, held my puke bowl, bathed me, and would even paint my toes when I needed a little extra pampering. He is a rock and helps me through the worst of times. I will forever be grateful.

Plus, a little ice cream always helps!

What kept you/keeps you busy during treatment?
I found a lot of creative outlets during treatment which helped keep my mind busy. I began knitting again and took up crochet as well. I revisited my love of art and started painting again. I also read a lot. And ate a lot of mac and cheese!

How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada? How did it happen?
A friend of mine had been connected with YACC in the past and I saw an article that she had shared on Facebook. I followed the link and found a family. It has been the best few years of my life; I have made some unforgettable relationships through YACC.

 

The issues

Did you feel isolated from your peers since your diagnosis? If so, how did that affect you?
It was very hard to accept that my “friends” no longer wanted to be around me simply because I couldn’t go out and drink or do fun things with them. My priorities shifted overnight and theirs didn’t. I did eventually find a new friend group and have really enjoyed branching out socially.

That being said, I do still feel isolated. I have a different appreciation for life than most people my age and I see importance in the little things that are often overlooked. I have a hard time relating to people my age overall.

Did anyone talk to you about fertility options before treatment? If so, how did that affect your decisions? If not, what do you wish you had known? With my first diagnosis, it wasn’t really an issue that was raised. At that point they believed that cancer would be merely an “inconvenience” and once I was done treatment, I could go back to living my life with little to no effects. It was mentioned that the RAI could cause fertility issues, but one dose wouldn’t hurt too much. At the time they didn’t know that I would have to go through more than one round.

After my thyroid was removed, I stopped menstruating completely and the doctors swore up and down that it had nothing to do with the synthetic hormones I have been taking. They finally found a dose I was comfortable on and I got my first period in two years on the night of my wedding—perfect timing!

We are now actively trying to get pregnant and so far we have not had any luck, but my OBGYN assures me that this is perfectly normal.

Looking back, I would have frozen my eggs if I had been given the chance. I am paranoid about the RAI having lasting effects on my body and I am so afraid that if I do become pregnant, it could cause issues for my pregnancy or my child. Freezing the eggs would not have been necessary but it would have given me a bit more peace of mind.

Has your cancer diagnosis affected any of the relationships in your life? If so, how, and how are you managing them?
Like I mentioned above, I lost a lot of friendships and made a lot of new ones. It also brought me much closer with my parents and grandparents—my dad in particular—and deepened the bond I have with my sister. My family as a whole is much closer now than we were before and we try to spend as much time together as we can.

Cancer taught my husband and I so much about who we are as people and I fully believe that it is what makes our marriage so strong.

How has your cancer experience affected your body image, and your relationship to your body?
I have a love/hate relationship with my body. I hate that I have gained so much weight and can’t lose it. It has affected the way I see myself and how I carry myself day to day. But on the other hand, I now have a very deep respect and understanding of exactly what my body can do. It may be heavier than I’d like, but it kicked cancer’s ass—not once, but twice! Every now and then Collin needs to give me a gentle reminder that I am beautiful no matter how I look, and that helps set me back on track. I am really trying to work on being body-positive and will continue to do so!

What are some lifestyle changes you’ve made since your diagnosis?
I no longer drink caffeine and have significantly cut back my alcohol intake. We eat much healthier in general and I try to stay as physically active as my body will allow me to. I also try to lead a hedonically healthy lifestyle and do things that make me happy for a change.

 

Resources and recommendations

What would you add to a treatment-day playlist?
I have a pretty unusual taste in music, but I would definitely include something upbeat, like “Happy” by Pharrell. Something relaxing (anything that KD Lang sings makes me feel weightless). Something empowering like “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten (totally cliché but I love it nonetheless), and something bold to remind me that I am here and not backing down, like the whole Jomsviking album by Amon Amarth.

Which books/movies/podcasts/TV shows/etc. would you recommend?
I watched a thousand and one series on Netflix during my time off, so I wouldn’t even know where to start! I also played a lot of video games so I definitely recommend checking out the Mass Effect series and FallOut 4. I have too many book recommendations, but I have really been enjoying books by T. Greenwood and Kate Morton.

What are your favourite blogs and websites for passing the time?
As a knitter/crocheter I frequent Ravelry (a free pattern search engine for yarn crafts) and I love to watch the Buzzfeed YouTube channel.

Have you participated in any other retreats, conferences, programs, or support groups you’d like your cancer peers to know about?
I have never attended an event before! Survivor Conference 2017: Fog Cancer will be my first YACC event!

 

Stay in touch

What would you like to say to other young adults dealing with cancer who are reading this profile?
Don’t be afraid of your feelings and listen to yourself. You know your body better than anyone else. And PLEASE, don’t be scared to reach out.

Are you interested in helping others facing cancer challenges? If so please let us know how you can be contacted.
I am an open book and very honest with my experience. If there are any thyroid cancer patients who want to share their journeys or learn a bit more about mine, I am more than willing to chat and would love to be able to connect! I am always happy to lend a listening ear to people of any cancer diagnosis so if you want to chat or simply need a friend send me an email or Facebook message! I also have a great nationwide plan with my cell phone so if texting is easier let me know and we can exchange info!

(If you are interested in connecting with Marley, email us at [email protected] and we’ll send along your message!)

 

UPDATE

Current age: 26

Age at diagnosis/relapse (if applicable): Diagnosed at 20, relapsed at  22, 24

Hometown: Sudbury, ON

How long has it been since your last treatment? Surgery in May 2018

How are you today? How have you changed since your last update?
Physically, I struggle with facial paralysis, nerve pain, loss of sensation, loss of taste, temperamental salivary glands, and hormone imbalance.

Emotionally/socially, the mental aspect of my cancer journey has been far harder than the physical side. I was not anticipating the isolation, depression, anxiety or paranoia that came along with my diagnosis. What truly surprised me the most was how much it affected my social life and relationships. At 19, when I was first diagnosed, the majority of my friends/social circle  moved on while my life was “on pause” and those friendships simply never recovered. After each of my relapses, though my circle became smaller and smaller, I began to truly understand the value of friendships and work hard to surround myself with positive, impactful people.

Though cancer has taken away many friends and loved ones, it also brought so many more incredible people into my life. Through YACC I have made some of the most important connections and relationships that I cherish more than anything. I am anxious for the future, I fear the unknown but mostly I am excited for all that life has to hold.

I am still on a spiritual journey. I tend to not necessarily relate spirituality solely to religion, instead, I relate it to any idea or belief of a higher power or outside force. I used to think that good things happen to good people and believed that karma would come back to those who deserve it, but if that’s what I believe, than how do I explain the fact that something as horrible as cancer has touched the lives of some of the most incredible people I have ever met?

Lately, I am shifting my focus away from karma or trying to understand “why me?” and finding myself focusing more on the idea that the more I put out into the world the more I will get back. The idea that people come into your life for a reason is another idea that really resonates with me. I believe that YACC and it’s members came into my life when I needed support the most and now I want to give that back to help inspire other young adults living with cancer.

After cancer I was forced to make a complete career shift. When I was first diagnosed, I was working in a child care centre and had aspirations of becoming a nurse. I quickly learned that my “new normal” likely wouldn’t allow me to work 12-hour shifts at the hospital. I decided that I would give a full-time career in childcare a shot, but soon after my return to work I found that children’s germs and weakened immune systems don’t really mesh well! I was offered an administration job at a local Wholesale Fuel Marketer and found that I actually really loved working in an office setting. While leaving behind a job that I loved was really difficult, I am confident in saying that it was the best decision I could have made for myself. My workplace and team are very supportive of my illness and struggles and continue to help me along the way whenever I need it.

What are you doing today?
Today I am working at my office, volunteering with the YACCtivism program and working hard on improving my self love and overall happiness!

What are you goals for the future?
My overall goal is to continue to work with the YACCtivist program to improve the supportive care and psychosocial aspect of AYA cancer care in Northern Ontario. I hope to inspire others through my story and someday be able to say that I have made a difference in someone’s life!

When you see yourself 10 years down the road, how does the picture look? 
In 10 years I hope to be well travelled, spending more time with my nephew and family, and continuing to advocate for AYA patients in the north! I hope that in the future I can worry less about cancer in general and focus more on overall healing. In 10 years I want to be a better version of myself!

Do you have any advice for other survivors who may be where you once were?
There is no shame in asking for help. I was so apprehensive to reach out to YACC and ask for help because I was so worried about living up to everyone else’s idea that I was “so strong!” Needing additional support is not a sign of weakness. It is a strength to be able to recognize one’s boundaries and to know when you simply need a little something more!

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