Melissa Cavanagh - Hodgkins Lymphoma

Melissa Cavanagh - Hodgkins Lymphoma

This is an article about Melissa Cavanagh, a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer survivor.
Originally published in Issue 4 2006 icon

Lymphatic Cancer - Quick Facts

The Show Must Go On For Melissa

By Madeleine Kingsley


Melissa Cavanagh was just 13 when diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. If anything could take the song out of this musical-mad Sunderland schoolgirl it was this life threatening illness.  Her mother, Trish Bell, has raised Melissa and her older brother, Jamie, (now 21) alone, so even managing the logistics of travel to and from hospital for treatment and consultations, without a car, augmented the family strain. But a positive outlook and surprise support saw Melissa through. She scooped a fine clutch of GCSEs including As in music and English Literature. Now 16 and a student of advanced musical theatre, Melissa’s in fine voice again and recently took centre stage at a cancer charity fundraiser, sharing the bill with Jools Holland, Paul Weller and Johnny Vegas.

Melissa’s story:

My problems started with agonising leg pains. They were usually worst at night, when I’d be screaming, but I remember one school music lesson when the pain was so intense I couldn’t concentrate. Before this, I’d hardly ever been sick. I was just an ordinary girl going to Thornhill School around the corner, enjoying music and maths, and singing in the school choir. My symptoms were really bizarre. I’d wake up in the night feeling as if I was carrying a heavy load. It was like surfacing from a dream and finding it real. I also had really bad night sweats and lost loads of weight. I kept needing to pee, so at one point I was scared that I had diabetes which is a bit ironic as that would have been minor, by comparison. Much later, when I looked on the internet, I saw that all my symptoms exactly matched lymphoma.

But my GP didn’t know what was wrong with me. First he asked if I might be pregnant at my age! and then, if I was being bullied at school. I was really confused and so was my Mum.

 But my GP didn’t know what was wrong with me, I was really confused and so was my Mum

He basically gave me some analgesics for growing pains and said there you go! But I kept going back with the same symptoms.  Finally, after several months and various urine and blood tests, he sent me to hospital for a bone scan. At that point I was more scared of injections than anything else I really hate those needles. After waiting for the results, the doctor sat us down and said I’m very sorry, but it looks like a tumour. I knew nothing about cancer but I realised at once that a tumour was a very bad thing.

LP1 Mum and I were crying our eyes out, and we were transferred literally at once to another hospital the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.  A family friend had to pick us up and take us there. I was in hospital for three weeks having more tests, and a biopsy which revealed that my lymphoma had reached the worst possible stage. I had multiple tumours in the lymph nodes all over the top half of my body. I was scared, of course, but my Mum was worse. She obviously had to give up working in a newsagent’s shop to look after me, so that was hard too. Although I was shocked, I somehow grasped the enormity of what was going on, and I seemed to accept it. I remember lying in bed with my mum perched on the end. She was asking my consultant again and again Is she going to be OK? He was quite reassuring: Well, she should be, he said, because this is one of the most curable cancers.  LP2

I started my treatment the very next day the plan was six months of chemotherapy. To begin with I had my own room on the children’s ward because I needed some privacy, just starting out on treatment.  Nobody ever did discover what caused the leg pains, but they disappeared as soon as I had the first dose of chemo and never recurred. During my hospital stay I had two operations one for a further biopsy and another, certainly, was to test my bone marrow, which I think was also affected. I really missed my friends, but after a few days I was moved to the Teenage Cancer Trust ward, which had its own sitting room, which was much more home-like. There’s even a pool table. While I was in there, the six year old son of one of Mum’s friends from the shop arrived as a patient too. He’d be playing pool with his drip attached to his side! I was now sharing a room with another girl and a boy. Laura, in the next bed, I really got to know well and I still sometimes talk to her on MSN. It was helpful to be with, and talk to others the same age and going through the same difficult experience. But we still had our dodgy disputes over who wanted the TV on and who didn’t!

I was quite lucky with the chemotherapy, because I didn’t feel too ill, and I was never sick. I was just constantly tired and lacking in energy. But they put me on steroids to keep my strength up, so instead of losing weight - as most people do - I put loads on. Steroids make you hungry all the time. I’m still struggling to get that weight off now and it’s the one legacy of being ill that upsets me. After three weeks I came out of hospital, but went back to the day unit every Friday. We knew pretty soon that I was responding to the drugs. Obviously there were days when I wasn’t at all in the Somehow you manage to remember that there is always someone worse off than yourself mood for chemo, and I wished I was anywhere but the ward. The medication I had to take daily was beyond disgusting I can only describe it as medical. Once a month I also had to take something that smelled like kitchen cleaner or bleach only stronger, utterly foul. The chemo period eventually extended to eight months, because my immune system got so low I had to take a break. Somehow you manage to remember that there is always someone worse off than yourself. There’s nothing you can do except keep on going, because you don’t have a choice. Mum, by now, was managing to be quite strong for me, and she was always there throughout. Relatives would all bring in loads of food and juice my Nan was so determined I’d have enough vitamin C she bought crates full of juice and insisted I drank the lot.

In three years I’ve had problems with only one single nurse who really upset me.  I was due for yet another blood test and, hating needles, asked for Emva cream to dull the sensation. She ripped the plaster off my arm quite roughly, so I screamed. Stop it she ordered.   You’re acting like a baby. That really got me down, because you do want to trust your nurse to be kind as they say, your life is in her hands.  Apart from that one incident, the doctors and nurses I’ve seen throughout these three years have been absolutely lovely.

For the family, money was a problem for a while, with Mum not working, so we had to go on benefits. But my school raised 1500 for us and people started doing charity events. My deputy Head of House, Mr Leadbeater, went round school every day, shaking a bucket with my photo on it. It was good for all of us - mum, my brother and me - to have a bit of a treat, because we were all going through the illness together.  My Auntie Sharon organised a special event at a nearby pub for my 14th birthday, with signed Sunderland football shirts to raffle. I was in the local paper a few times, too, and a local man, Alan, who’s since become a family friend, donated a laptop for me. He read how much I wanted a PC so I could study at home, with my SATS then coming up. It was one of those weird coincidences that he happened to buy the paper that Friday, when he never normally did. He works round the corner and pretty much just called round with the laptop, knocking on the door and saying Here you go! He’s been a friend almost an uncle figure -ever since, and often drives me for check-ups.

Obviously there were times when it crossed my mind I might die, because some people do just Obviously there were times when it crossed my mind I might die stop responding to treatment. I remember getting upset once, when we were going out for a meal and it was one of the first times I’d worn a wig. The hospital paid for four different ones for me I chose two with bandanas, both with plaits, plus one blonde (don’t ask me why!) and one a reddish brown.  But most of the time I was making the best of things and new opportunities that arose. I was taken on patient trips one to Lakeside, an outdoor activities centre, where I did rock climbing  I was asked, at one point, to sing at the Peterlee College Awards night and I sang Save the Best to Last, which was a really good experience, as I sang in front of Coronation Street’s Bruno Langley, who was presenting the awards. When the treatment was over, there was still one small, residual tumour left near my heart, so I then had to have radiotherapy too. This was completed at the Christmas I was 14. In some ways this was worse than the chemo. For some reason, the radiotherapy killed my throat and I couldn’t eat any festive dinner. Alan took me every day for four, maybe six weeks. Since then, it’s looked good for me, I think, with reassuring blood results. But my consultant didn’t want to say anything officially until about a year ago, when the scans conclusively showed I was in remission.

Once I got my hair back I began to feel more myself, and fully recovered once it had grown past the short stage! My hair actually grew back twice: because of the break in chemo, it started to come through but it was a horribly grey-mousey colour. Once treatment re-started, I was hairless again. I’d catch sight of myself in the mirror, bald, and think Eee! Who’s that? At least I didn’t have to shampoo and blow dry! But when it grew back the second time, it was a richer colour than it ever had been, and curly! I love it. When I first went back to school I was still wearing a wig, yet feeling very different. I hadn’t exactly been Miss Sociable before I had cancer. I’d had two best friends, and that was it. I didn’t speak much to anyone else. But now everyone started talking to me and wanting to know how I was doing. I found out who my true friends were, too, because when I was stuck at home, unable to go to school because of the risk of infection, I expected to see my friends. We’d always walked past my house into town at dinner time. But for some reason they chose a different route, and didn’t pop in.  Maybe they didn’t know what to say, and it must have been hard for them, but I had thought they would be there for me. I found it really disappointing. But when I went back to school after the cancer, everyone wanted to know me and I made loads of new friends. I’d changed. I was much more outgoing and somehow more connected and confident. Cancer certainly didn’t make me shy and retiring. As soon as possible I was back in my drama group: I sang in Fame earlier this year and at Christmas I was one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters playing it for laughs. I’m at college full-time now, studying Advanced Musical Theatre and I still have the energy to waitress part-time at the Stadium of Light Sports Bar. My hope is to move down to London for further study when my two year course in Newcastle ends. I love the metropolitan buzz.  My dream is to sing in West End shows and I’ll do my utmost to make it happen.

Why do I think I got well? Obviously the chemotherapy worked, but I think having a positive attitude goes a long way. Even the nurses said that you respond better to treatment if you are happy. I think having a positive attitude goes a long way. And I was. I know it sounds weird, given that cancer is meant to be the worst thing ever, but in some ways this was the best time of my life. Maybe it was because beforehand you’d scarcely have noticed I was in the room, and then I grew used to having all eyes though mostly medical ones on me, and my personality blossomed. I’m more understanding of people now, and I find I’m everyone’s agony aunt. It may sound cheesy, but I want to help people more. It’s surreal looking back now: time went really slowly whilst I was ill. It seemed to last forever. Now I wonder When did this happen? It’s almost as if it never did.  My illness just LP3 opened so many doors. At the end of 2004 I was sent to London for a PET scan, for which the hospital paid. Mum and I made the most of it and booked tickets for the Queen musical We Will Rock You. I’d never heard Queen before I was ill, but Alan used to play their music on the drive to hospital. I love their music so much and I think if anything got me through being ill, it was Queen. I even got to meet Brian May, because I sent him an e-mail telling him how important the group had been for me. He wrote back saying how lovely it was to hear that, and as I had tickets to the Queen concert in Newcastle, perhaps I’d like to pop backstage and see him! So I got to drink elderflower wine and chat for ages in his dressing room! Without cancer I would never have sung for Bandstand, the Teenage Cancer Trust concert at the Sage (concert hall) in Newcastle.  My consultant Kevin Windebank put my name forward because he knew of my interest in singing. He’d heard me sing Summer of ’69 with the karaoke at the hospital Christmas party! I thought I’d just be shaking a few buckets at this massive event with Jools Holland, but about a month beforehand I was asked to sing a solo how amazing was that! It was one of those situations where TCT asked me first if I would sing and then asked if I could sing! I hope so. I said, I’ve been doing it all my life! As a trial I had to sing in front of drummer Ray Laidlaw and Billy Mitchell from the group Lindisfarne. I sang Strong Enough by Stacey Orrico. And they loved it! They said it brought a tear to the eye.  I can’t really describe my style, but people say I’ve a velvety voice with soul. On the big night I wore black trousers and a sixties print top which I bought specially no posh frocks for me. It came from New Look. I wore my hair down long dark and curly, which was a bit of a triumph all its own! Just before I went on I was absolutely petrified. Usually on stage I’m scared throughout the song. But that night, as soon as I started singing, I loved every second! It was all I’d hoped for and morethe best day of my life.

Obviously at the time the cancer was really bad and I loathed the chemotherapy. But for my new friends and new confidence, for the realisation that you’ve just got to go for it every day and for all the opportunities that have come my way ...I’ve got to say that it’s all been completely worth it.


Quote from Melissa’s mum, Trish:

I had to take my lead from herThroughout Melissa’s illness I had to take my lead from her, and stay strong and positive. I couldn’t be weak when she wasn’t. It took me by surprise how brilliantly she coped, because she’d never needed that kind of strength, so I’d never seen her show it before. I think it’s harder to deal with Melissa’s cancer in retrospect, than it was at the time. It’s only now that I can really allow myself to take it on board. Sometimes, at night, reflecting on the enormity of it all, I can still break down in tears. It’s not any experience you expect your child to go through. I’ll never forget Melissa singing at the Teenage Cancer Trust concert. Jamie, her brother and I were shaking buckets for the charity, but after Melissa had sung we just stood and looked at each other, speechless. And Jamie just gathered me in his arms. Of course, Melissa is now extra special for what she’s been through. She’s the light of my life and as she’s the type of person who gets where she wants to go, I’ve a feeling I may yet see her singing on the West End stage.

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