I had a lump in my neck. I thought it was from talking on the phone, because at work, I used to hold the phone. I was really tired, and I’d lost some weight. I had really itchy skin. From the time I noticed the lump to the time I actually went to the doctor, my neck was swollen to a ridiculous amount. I couldn’t wear certain necklaces. It was itchy. It was a bump and then it became a bigger bump, and then within a week, my whole neck had gotten wider.
Cancer’s a huge part of my mother’s family. My uncle was diagnosed with lymphoma. My aunt had uterine cancer. There’s so much cancer in my mother’s family. I never worried about it because my father’s family is so healthy. But I knew it was serious when I went to the doctor, because the nurse called back the same day and said that she’d scheduled a biopsy for me the next day. To get an appointment that fast in New York, I was like, “Something’s very wrong.” I pretty much knew in the back of my mind that it was going to be cancer, but the hardest part was waiting for the results. They actually did the biopsy and removed some nodes.
My family lives in Pakistan. My parents are divorced, and I’m not as close to my father as I am to my mother. I told my father, and he just couldn’t say anything. He said, “I’ll call you back,” and hung up. I cried the hardest when I knew I had to tell my parents, because it wasn’t going to be easy for them to know that their youngest child has cancer. My mother was very calm and was like, “You’ll be fine. Do you want me to come now or do you want me to come later?” I’m very private, so I said, “I want you here, but I don’t want you here yet. I want you here when chemo starts.” She flew in first, and then my father, and then my brother. They were all here with me.
Take your time, because everyone is rushing you. For me, it was, “You have cancer and you need to start chemotherapy immediately. Go see this doctor or that doctor.” Insurance companies are throwing names at you. I was lucky enough to find my doctor, but you need to take time out and really do your research. No one is going to know who’s right for you. No one is going to know what’s comfortable for you. I went to see one doctor, and I walked in and immediately I knew this wasn’t the place for me. It was a small clinic. It had two chairs, and it was crowded. There were ten people in a tiny waiting room. I knew that if that’s where I’d be getting chemo, I didn’t have any privacy. I knew I was going to be sick, and it wasn’t the right surrounding. That’s what I was being pushed into. I told the doctor, “I’ll get back to you.” It took me three weeks to get to my doctor and get the scans right and get everything right. But it’s so important to do your homework and put yourself first. Whether it means taking a week off work or focusing in and doing your research, just do it.
I get tired easier, and it’s harder for me to run what I did. In month three or four, I noticed when I’d go out, my lungs would hurt. When I’d breathe in, it wasn’t the same capacity. The doctor had told me that one of the drugs, bleomycin, could affect my heart and lungs. If it affected it a lot, he’d take me off of it. I was on ABVD, and it was my lungs. I just couldn’t breathe in as much. I talked to him, and he said that they had been affected, but not enough to take me off the drug. He said, “It’s going to be better if you stay on.” So I definitely get winded so much easier. If I do a lot of strenuous exercise, my heart hurts, but it isn’t a bad hurt. It’s just something I’m not used to. I’m getting used to the breathing. But my doctor always makes fun of me. He’s like, “Natasha, you just went through chemo. Give yourself a break.” He said it’s going to get a little better, but I’ll know that something happened, like a reminder. Your lungs harden from the bleomycin, so it’s a side effect that I need to work around. And then I ran a half marathon.
They actually started me on hormone therapy, so I am very concerned about my ability to have children. They put me on medication for menopause. It’s temporary. I’m still feeling the side effects. I think the doctor said four or five months after treatment, it’ll be back to normal, but that was the main reason. The doctor said that ABVD is the most gentle chemo, but I think that’s a contradiction in terms. Gentle chemo? It’s the friendly chemo. I’ve always wanted children, so that was the hardest thing for me. I wanted to have my eggs frozen, but it turns out that the hormones that they need to stimulate the eggs for that process, would enhance the cancer, so it was a double-edged sword. I trust my doctor. He put me on hormones. You wait and see.
Hot flashes started before chemo. That was one of the side effects that I had told the doctor when I went in for therapy. I’d wake up at night, and I’d be drenched in sweat. I’d have to change my shirt. I thought it was because I moved into a new apartment. You try to make excuses for everything. That continued through chemo, simply because when the treatment was improving my cancer, the hormone therapy was kicking in, and that had hot flashes, but it was worse. I’d be sitting at work and everyone would have sweaters on, and I’d be like, “Can you turn the fan on?” Humor was a huge part of it for me. I think everyone responded well to me. I still am feeling the hot flashes because of the medication. So it continues. It’s getting better and better each week, and hopefully it’ll go away soon.
Family members need to be very patient, because I’ve heard a lot of times that cancer happens to the family. It annoys me. I’m like, “No, cancer happened to me, and you’re there for me.” I wanted to make my mother feel comfortable, and I wanted my brother to feel comfortable. I was so busy taking care of them. You need time on your own to get through your emotions, or it’s going to catch up with you like it did with me. I did not have a single moment alone. In a way, it’s great. You just don’t have time to think. You go from work to home and you have friends and family, and on weekends, they make plans for you. Or you’ve gone through chemo, and you’re sick and they’re sitting by your bedside, and you really just want to be on your own. I had a life before this, and I want to lead my life. I don’t want it to be a constant reminder that I need someone to cook for me or clean for me, even though it might be true. I need someone to change the kitty litter for me all the time. But not be by the person’s side all the time. To be there when they reach out for you or when they ask for help, because they will.
I’m not very religious. I’m more spiritual. Finding the strength when you’re sick. I’m asked, “Why did this happen to you?” I don’t know. All I can do is hope it doesn’t come back. I’m so scared. I have my next scan on the 16th. Every day I’m like, “What if it comes back? Am I going to be strong enough to go through it again?” I’m sure I will be. But by the fifth or sixth chemo, you’re like, “I can’t do this again. How am I going to go through twelve of these?” You just reach in and find the strength that you never knew you had. If you don’t find the strength in it, no one around you can give it to you. I don’t know how you’re going to find it, whether it’s going to be through having friends around telling you you can do it or just really reaching in and laying it out there. But if you don’t find the meaning and the reason that you want to get better, it’s a hard fight. You need to have that. You need to have that strength and that will and a reason to go on. I’m not ready to give up to cancer, not at 27.
LIVESTRONG™ means so many things to me. Lance Armstrong is an amazing athlete, and I am an athlete. I was like, “If he can do it, I can do it.” I went out and bought his books. I saw him race. He has the same scars I do from the surgery. He went through so many of the same things. For me, it was his foundation and the yellow bracelet. To see people wear it, people are out there supporting me whether they know it or not. It may be a fashion statement, but to me, it’s a group of human beings who know that cancer is out there and that it needs the attention. We need research. We need survivors speaking up. We need doctors. We need everything.
My name is Natasha Alam. I am 27 years old, and I am a Hodgkin’s disease survivor.