"I kept my cancer a secret from friends"

Published Wednesday, Jun 1 2016, 20:00 BST  |  By  |  Add comment
Gemma Hakner was just 17 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. She didn't tell her pals, but when the cancer returned she realised their support was worth its weight in gold...

"Growing up, I'd always been the kind of person who'd feel a little poorly and convince myself it was something sinister.

'Don't be silly,' my friends would laugh. 'You're such a hypochondriac!'

Gemma Hakner now

© Katie Jade

But then, in summer 2010, when I was 16, I felt a little lump under the skin on the left-hand side of my neck.

When it hadn't gone away a few months later, I went to my local GP in Norfolk. I had no other symptoms, though, so he sent me away saying it was nothing to worry about.

Not long after, I started feeling really tired and kept having to leave college at lunchtime to go home and sleep. All my food had started to taste gross and metallic.

'It's just the grim college canteen,' I reassured myself. But, three months later, another lump popped up. After a frantic internet search, I realised the lymps could be my lymph nodes.

Panicking, I became convinced I had lymphoma – all my symptoms pointed to it.

When I went back to my doctor, they brushed off my concerns and offered me a urine test. It showed my potassium levels were too high, so I was diagnosed with cystitis.

I was unconvinced by what I'd been told, though, so I went back every few months, only to be turned away. In time, I noticed another dramatic change – I was rapidly losing weight. Over the course of a year, I'd somehow lost a stone-and- a-half.

In January 2011, I made a doctor's appointment for the sixth time.

This time I saw a different GP, and she sent me to hospital for an ultrasound and biopsy.

While waiting for my results, a tennis ball-size lump erupted on my neck.

Terrified, I tried to block out what was happening by hiding the lump with my hair.

Although my family knew what I was going through, I didn't want to tell anyone else, not even the guy I was dating at the time.

After numerous tests, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in May 2011.

'An answer at last,' I said, so relieved.

Aged 17 by this point, I hated the idea of people pitying me.

I just wanted to be normal and not think about my illness, so I made the decision to only tell a few close friends.

Gemma Hakner hid her cancer diagnosis from friends

© Reader's own

She wore a wig on nights out with friends

Two months later, I started chemotherapy and it wasn't long before my long blonde hair started to fall out. I was devastated, but I bought a brown human-hair wig and told my friends I'd dyed my locks.

For the next five months, I'd finish my chemo, put my wig on and go out boozing with friends. No one realised I had cancer!

By December 2011, the treatment was over and I was in remission.

Determined to put it all behind me, I started working in a bar, saved money and moved abroad the following year.

Over the next two years, I travelled in Italy, France and Austria. I had the best time of my life.

But then, in summer 2014, I found another lump in my neck.

This time, I knew the metallic taste was a sign the cancer had returned.

On July 13, 2015, after an ultrasound, I was told the cancer was back. I was devastated, and had to start treatment two days later.

Second time around, the process was brutal. I felt extremely sick and was bed-ridden for a week. Again, I lost my hair.

Writing became my outlet. I set up a blog, With Love From G, and posted hair advice for cancer patients.

I'd try different wigs, upload photos of me wearing them and write a review.

When Gemma Hakner began chemo she lost her hair

© Reader's own

She lost her hair after starting chemo

As I was older this time, I didn't want to hide my cancer from friends - I knew they'd understand and be sympathetic. So, I put a post on Facebook and explained what i was going through.

My friends were shocked. but their support was overwhelming. I realised it was what I had been lacking last time, and their encouragement spurred me on.

At the same time, my blog evolved into a journal as I updated my followers through my journey.

Although I'd hidden my cancer the first time, I wanted to be open now as I'd realised that it wasn't something I should have to face alone.

Fortunately, in December last year, the doctors said I was in remission again.

I had a stem cell transplant, in January, so they could regenerate, which I hope will mean the cancer is less likely to return again.

Although I used to be really angry about having cancer twice, I've finally let go.

Now, my plan is to work a ski season abroad in Italy or France, and go travelling again.

I feel like I've been given another chance at life, so I'm going to make the most of it!"

By Paisley Gilmour

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