I have been out of hospital now for just over three weeks. I use the word ”out” loosely as I’m constantly in and out of the day ward. Not just for fun obviously, you see I’m on day +55 from an allogenic stem cell transplant, so I still require all the blood tests, and the conversations I’ve grown to love; yes bowels are fantastic, passing urine like a champ and no the nausea hasn’t gone.
I was infused with an unrelated anonymous donors bone marrow on what they call day zero. All I know about the donor is that he’s German, early 20’s and obviously that he’s a he. I’ve affectionately named my new marrow Hans. I didn’t suddenly be come fluent in German as was the running joke in hospital, however what Hans has given me is a chance at life. A brand new immune system (which is being suppressed with meds but that's a whole other story), one I wouldn’t have had without him.
So I guess I should probably introduce myself now! My name is Hannah Brittain, I'm 32 and live in Wellington with my brother who moved in before my transplant to be my carer, and my 17 month old baby cat Binky. What else do you say here – it’s usually what you do for work, isn't it? A little awkward and not applicable in this case. I was working as a counsellor, until my cancer relapsed, and I chose to be 'medically retired' from that company. Am I still a counsellor? Or does that just tell you my qualifications? I could also say here while introducing myself is that I have leukaemia. And I could tell you that between 2 diagnoses and subsequent periods of treatment I've spent the equivalent of a year in hospital.
Does that tell you anything about me as a person? Maybe.
The first diagnosis came in May 2013. To call it a shock would be an under statement. “You have acute myeloid leukemia”. What ? I think I may have even said to the GP who had blurted it out before I’d even sat down, “is this a joke!?” Once my hideously interrupted life was seemingly back together, the wheels fell off again. In April of this year, armed with my mum, dad and brother, we trekked back into cancerland to hear the relapse diagnosis. This time we had an idea what to expect; we already spoke the language.
My brother sent me a Ted talk the other day that has really got me thinking about identity and how we define ourselves. It talked about claiming our experiences as opposed to our experiences claiming us. I'm the first to admit I'm totally claimed by cancer; patient, survivor, and again patient. I've put the shoes on; never mind that they’re not my color, size or style. Why do I keep wearing them? Truth is they are comfortable and familiar, and I’m not sure where to begin yet. Being single and jobless, without all the usual roles and titles (mother, wife, lawyer etc.) I'm not sure what I'm left with besides cancer. I don't want to define myself that way anymore I know that much, now it's my turn to claim my experience and not let it define me anymore.