Most of us don’t give a second thought to our physical health, until we have it (temporarily) taken away from us when we get sick with a cold, or injure ourselves. For those with cancer, it becomes the cruellest diagnosis to receive in your youth — a time where you should be out living your life to the fullest.
This week, ENID spoke to Maddie, a 20-year-old uni student who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last year.
TW: This article discusses cancer and cancer recovery.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m Maddie, and a lot of my life can be summed up in ‘C’s — cats, coffee and unfortunately, cancer! I’m a massive cat-lady (no shame) and can talk your ear off how particular I am about my coffee beans 😂 I’m also business student at USYD majoring in Marketing, and recently launched my first business called ‘For Andy’ selling sustainable headscarves for cancer patients like myself — where 10% of profits go towards funding clinical trials and genetic research for incurable child cancers. I’m also a bit of a health and fitness nut and recently became a certified KX Pilates instructor!
Fill in the blanks — Right now I’m…
eating ___, drinking ___, hearing ___ and loving ___
I’m eating anything doused in chicken salt
Drinking cold brew with oat milk
Hearing ‘The Drive’ podcast by Peter Attia
And loving all things space-related!
You were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in October last year. As traumatic as it is, take me back to that moment — what was your reaction to the diagnosis?
I remember feeling numb, like I was watching my life happen before my eyes but I wasn’t actually participating – almost like watching a movie of yourself where someone else plays your character. This numbness was strangely also mixed in with some relief, as I finally (after four months) had an answer to explain all of the bizarre symptoms I was having. This reaction was actually something that surprised me. I always thought that upon hearing news like that one would just burst into tears, or faint. I think my body’s fight or flight senses kicked in straight away and I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction until I got home that afternoon. That first night was really hard, being alone in my bed and processing it all for the first time. I cried into my pillow until I was so exhausted I fell asleep.
How has having had cancer as a young person changed your life?
Having cancer at any point in your life is awfully traumatic and definitely changes you as a person, but having it at such a young age where you are supposed to be ‘invincible’ is really difficult to get your head around.
Being confronted with the fragility of life and experiencing the whiplash of having your life do a 360 like that is something no 19-year-old should have on their to-do list. I spent a long time feeling really bitter and resentful that these were my life circumstances and of how much trauma I had to experience so young. I had already lost my father to pancreatic cancer when I was 16, so getting my own diagnosis while I was still grieving that loss really did a number on my mental health. It’s all made me grow up very quickly – I lost a lot of friends in the process as it can feel quite jarring to be close with people who don’t possess a certain level of maturity to deal with their friend having cancer.
However in the same breath, having cancer also saved me from wasting time on the wrong people and wrong things. I used to put so much energy into appeasing social ideals around appearances, career choices and so on; but when you experience what it’s like to truly fight for your life and experience a tremendous amount of real pain and suffering for months on end, you come out the other side and realised those things were so stupid to begin with. I may have lost time to this disease, but it also saved me from wasting it in the future.
What was the single hardest thing about your cancer journey?
The recovery (which is still ongoing!)
I’ve never experienced something so mind-blowingly difficult as having to rebuild your life from scratch after something like cancer, especially amidst a global pandemic. When you’re having treatment, as sick as it makes you feel and as much as you hate being bald, chubby and weak, every time you sit in that chair for an infusion you know you’re doing something about the problem at hand. You spend months defining your life by chemo days & hospital visits and become very removed from the ‘real world’.
However, after treatment finishes, you’re expected to go back to all of the things you were doing before because you’re “better” now. There is a lot of PTSD to work through and crippling anxiety that keeps me up a lot of nights worrying about the cancer coming back. You have to heal the relationship you have with your body again and learn to trust it again after you feel like it’s just betrayed you – every pain, cough, itch makes you jump to conclusions that there’s tumours inside your body again. It’s a complete whirlwind that is hard to comprehend unless you’re living it, but I wish more people would understand how difficult a life after cancer can be, especially the first few years where relapse is much more likely.
What are some positive things that have come from this experience?
I touched on some of it before, but outside of positives in the way I have grown and changed, cancer has introduced me to some of the most incredible people in the entire world. There is such power in shared experiences, and I have friends with cancer all over the world who have been there for me in the worst of times and who I’m very close with. For that I’m so grateful (for free accommodation when travelling overseas, obviously).
Cancer was also the catalyst for why I started my business as I experienced how subpar the available products were for the needs of young people with cancer, and wanted to create the products I wish I had while I was going through it. It’s been the most fulfilling venture, and wouldn’t have been possible without cancer! I also took the plunge and decided to become a Pilates trainer – something I previously would have felt shame towards as it isn’t a ‘real’ job in corporate, and I’ve started training a few of the cancer girls to help them feel stronger after treatment which I just adore doing.
What’s the community like for other young women who have had/are having treatment for cancer (both online and in real life)?
I was so lucky to have found Cancer Chicks Australia really early in my cancer experience. Cancer Chicks was started by my beautiful friend Rikki Stern who also had Hodgkins Lymphoma about a year before I did. It’s grown to a community of a few hundred girls now and is such a safe and understanding space for young women with cancer. We went on a beautiful retreat earlier this year and it is truly one of my most cherished memories – I made so many close friends over that weekend that I can’t imagine my life without now.
I was (and still am) really open about my experiences on social media – a lot of girls reached out to me on Instagram who were going through the same thing and that’s how I connected with all of these people from different countries and different cities. Social media has its flaws but I don’t think I could have gotten through my cancer experience without the communities I found on those platforms.
What’s something you want people to know?
Life is the only disease with a 100% mortality rate, and yet we all spend so many, too many years acting like we’re invincible to that fact. Our bodies are not disposable; they are fragile and they will break – just make sure you fit your life in before they do.
What’s next for Maddie King?
My main focus at the moment is growing ‘For Andy’ and seeking new directions to take the business in. I think the market of young people going through cancer, or even other debilitating illnesses for that matter, has been severely overlooked and it’s time to change that, these people deserve to be heard just as much as anyone else.
I’ve also become very passionate about health advocacy, not just in the cancer space but general health and fitness, so would love to start doing more serious work in that space. There is so much health education that is missing from the social conversation, particularly amongst young people who tend to neglect their health until something obviously goes wrong. If I can educate one person to stay on top of their health checks and take care of their body just a little bit more, I’ve done my job!
You can find Maddie on Instagram: @mxddieking