One in two Australians are affected by cancer in their lifetime, but at 30-years-old Hannah Thomas was shocked to be one of them.
"I didn't really have any symptoms at all, just [swollen] lymph nodes on my neck. I kind of dismissed them and thought maybe they’re just knots," she told Yahoo News Australia.
Hannah, who lives in Sydney with her now-husband Simon, was months out from her wedding when she got the news after a fertility test in March, 2022. Within days, she was diagnosed with T Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, a rare form of blood cancer that makes up 10 per cent of all leukaemia cases in Australia with a 50 per cent five-year survival rate in adults.
"We were devastated and scared. I knew all too well what my diagnosis meant," she said.
'The hardest thing I've ever had to do'
The shock news brought their wedding plans to a halt for a second time after their nuptials were cancelled during Covid the year before, and what followed was a "very intense" medical journey including five rounds of chemotherapy.
"Not knowing what the future holds is really the hardest part [of having cancer]," she said. But her 100 days spent at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney was "really awful" too.
"That whole experience was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I don't even know if I could begin to explain how hard that hospital stay was," she recalled. "I could barely move for the majority of that hospital stay — even going to the toilet took so much energy".
A clinical trial with "intense" chemo reduced Hannah's cancer, but not as much as hoped and "the last little bit of cancer keeps coming back". She was placed in a high-risk category and underwent a bone marrow transplant from an "incredibly generous selfless donor" from Germany, and while it helped, she's still not in remission.
Couple unable to 'process' not having children
The crippling disease has robbed the couple of starting a family which Hannah still hasn't "processed". "I think the hardest part is knowing that I can't give my husband the same future that we always wanted. That part is really hard," she said.
"I see his heartbreak every time we get sad news, and I think that's because he loves me so much.
"Even though I can't give him that same future, and even though it must be so hard for him, he shows up for me every day, and he's never once kind of made me feel like I wasn't worthy of his love. I can't overstate how lucky I am to have that".
Sydney couple's 'incredible' wedding: 'I felt like a normal bride'
Hannah and Simon, who have been together for more than eight years, were finally able to wed in May this year. The "incredible" wedding in Berry, NSW was "filled with so much love and laughter and lots of tears. But for once, they were happy tears," Hannah said.
While still sick, the 31-year-old took a break from treatment and "felt amazing" on her special day. "I felt like a totally normal bride," she said. By this point, she'd lost all her hair after shaving it off in front of friends and family four weeks into treatment. Her friends chipped in to make an "amazing" wig made from her real hair which she wore on her big day.
During the organised head shave outside the hospital, several friends and family members also shaved their heads which "gave [her] courage" to do the same.
"That was just such an empowering day. [My hair has] always been long and blonde and such a part of my appearance, so it was really strange to have to shave it off," she said. "We cried through the whole thing".
'I don't know what the future holds'
Hannah is sharing her story to "give hope" to others battling this "really awful" journey. "I didn't respond to chemo straight away. It took eight months of chemo and a bone marrow transplant to even get into remission," she said. "And then even then, even though it was small, it's already back again.
"When I first got diagnosed, all I wanted was to find someone like me, who was my age, who had this cancer, who was okay. And it was really scary to keep finding stories where that person had died".
"I don't know what the future holds, but for now, I'm here," she said a year and a half on from her diagnosis. "I hope we can keep funding new research and find new treatments that can hopefully pull me through this".
Cancer Council's Daffodil Day is on Thursday, August 31. It raises funds for lifesaving cancer research. In 2022, Daffodil Day raised around $2.5 million. You can donate at daffodilday.com.au.
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