In advance of International Childhood Cancer Day on Sunday, Hannah Dunleavy looks at the work of the Teenage Cancer Trust and speaks to a young cancer survivor about what the charity means to her.
Madeleine Ralph before and during her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
What do you say to someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer? What if they’re a child? What do you say to their families and friends?
I put this question to Madeleine Ralph, who’s 24 and was recently given the all clear from cancer.
She pauses. “The one thing I’d say is try to think positively. I know that’s easy to say because it’s a very scary time. But you have to think positively.”
Madeleine, who lives in Cambridge, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May last year. She’d gone to the doctor after developing an itchy rash on her ankles. He prescribed her a steroid cream, which cleared it up, but a few months later it came back. She returned to her GP to find out the root cause, expecting to be told it was an allergy.
Instead, a blood test and a subsequent x-ray revealed a massive tumour in her chest wall and stage four cancer, the most serious and aggressive stage. It was, understandably, an enormous shock to the whole Ralph family.
So, rather than starting a new job, as she’d been expecting, Madeleine began the first of six cycles of chemotherapy. She lost her hair, was plagued with mouth ulcers and had to undergo blood and platelet transfusions.
Yet, when I speak to her, some of the first words out of her mouth are: “I was very lucky.”
By this, she means she was treated on the Teenage Cancer Trust’s specialist ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. Funded and built by the charity, it opened in 2012, and supports inpatients and outpatients aged 13-24, in a bright and vibrant ‘home-from-home’ ward.
The unit has a social zone where young people can hang out and watch Sky TV, play music on the jukebox, play pool or on games consoles. There’s a family room, a ‘chill-out pod’, a quiet room and a learning hub where patients can keep up their studies by taking their GCSE, AS and A2 exams.
Madeleine says: “Been treated on the Teenage Cancer Trust ward was a lifesaver. It felt like it was my sanctuary. I never felt out of place, which is sometimes how I felt like if I had to visit the adult ward with my mum, as other patients would automatically assume it was my mum having treatment and not me.”
The Teenage Cancer Trust unit at Addenbrooke’s Hospital where Madeleine was treated
Spending time with other youngsters with cancer was also vital to getting through the experience, she adds.
“I made friends with other people my own age going through the same thing as me. I even met someone right at the beginning of my treatment who had just finished chemotherapy for the same type of cancer as me, which I found really helpful.
“You don’t stick out. You’re not a minority. You’re with people who understand what you are going through, like the side effects. There are times when you are just shattered. And they get it, when other people might not, as much as they might care.
“I was very lucky. And being there, you realise there is always someone with something worse than you.”
Teenage Cancer Trust also provides for the families of the youngsters in its unit – with facilities, with care and with the opportunity to share time with parents facing the same fears as they are.
Madeleine adds: “My family were really worried about me, but I was really worried about them too. The Teenage Cancer Trust counsellor came to me on the first day and said ‘I’m here for you, but I’m also here for your family’. Which was brilliant.
“The Teenage Cancer Trust ward was so important on so many levels and really changed my experience. There are so many facilities. There’s wifi so you don’t feel shut off from friends and family. And there’s air-conditioning, which is a godsend when you’re superhot and you’re wearing a wig.”
Having been given the all-clear, Madeline’s life is slowly returning to normal, including working two days a week at an environmental consultancy.
“It’s great to be back in that world, although it’s a struggle to get into a routine. You have to build up your stamina and build up to full-time work.”
She remains full of praise of the unit’s dedicated and specially-trained staff.
“The nurses make you feel special, they know who you are, they know things about you. They never made you feel self-conscious. That’s why giving to Teenage Cancer Trust is important. It funds their training.
“When I was there on the Teenage Cancer Trust ward, I felt safe. I felt like I was with the right people. And, to be honest, that was priceless.”
For more information, or to donate to the Teenage Cancer Trust, visit www.teenagecancertrust.org and follow the charity on twitter @teenagecancer
Teenage Cancer Trust has been supporting young people with cancer for 25 years
• Cancer is the leading medical (non-accidental) cause of death in young people.
• The Teenage Cancer Trust is the only charity dedicated to caring and supporting young people aged 13-24 who have been diagnosed with cancer.
• Founded in 1990, the Teenage Cancer Trust currently provides specialist teenage units in 28 NHS hospitals around the UK.
• The Teenage Cancer Trust also trains and funds staff who are teenage cancer specialists.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.