Benjamin Atkins (21) from Berkhamstead was diagnosed with having Stage 4B Hodgkin Lymphoma when he was 15. He was treated at the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at UCLH. Here is Benjamin's story.
I have a frightening recall of the day I was diagnosed with cancer as it was the last normal day of my young life. I was picked up from school by my mum and she drove off without my siblings and she said we were going to the hospital.
I had been ill for months, but multiple trips to the doctors had given back numerous diagnoses - gluten allergy, acid reflux, anxiety over exams; I had heard it all. I had lost weight to the point that I weighed no more than 50kg. I was unsure about what awaited me and was shocked that I was at the hospital when the whole ward was closed. I was rushed immediately in for an X Ray and an MRI scan.
No more than two hours later, I was told the phrase no fifteen-year-old should ever have to hear - "you have cancer".
I had a tumour the size of a tennis ball. The next day I was transferred to the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at University College Hospital London. I had further tests and I was diagnosed with Stage 4B Hodgkin Lymphoma – which is the most severe – but was told the cure rate was 80 percent.
I underwent six months of chemotherapy. I was given a scan after three months, showing I was cancer-free but my six-month scan showed a relapse. It definitely sucked but I didn’t have a choice but to do another six months chemotherapy, with two months of radiotherapy. It was a similar story. Three months post treatment, I was given the all clear. Six months post treatment, I was told I had once again relapsed.
This meant I had to have a stem cell transplant, and my extremely needle-phobic brother was the unlucky donor of these stem cells. I had three top ups, the maximum I could have, and there was still a tennis ball sized tumor growing in my body. My options were very slim.
I’d battled for three years, sat my GCSE's and AS Levels, and all of that felt in vain as I was given "months, if not weeks to live" and put on palliative care. It hurt but I’d spent three years living on the edge of knowing I could die so it wasn’t a surprise.
I was given the option of a having a drug called Brentuximab, with the aim of extending life but with no expectation of cure. After six months however, I was feeling strangely well, and the doctors decided to scan me. To this day, the reason I am alive is not an exact science. The general theory is that the stem cell transplant decided to work a few years later than it should have, but no-one can be sure.
While I went through cancer, every physical act was a battle. The most menial tasks - from getting out of bed, to keeping relationships with friends and loved ones - became almost insurmountable tasks. This is also true from the other side.
Cancer is an illness that is typically associated with younger children, and the elderly. As a young adult, going through a huge transitional period in your life, a pediatric ward can feel as isolating as a ward with people as old as your parents. Teenage Cancer Trust provides an environment where this is not the case. I was placed on ward where a pool table, XBOX, and everything in-between was readily available for me to use on my stays. They were flexible with my friends, had no fixed visiting hours, and even went as far as allowing them to stay in my room on sleepovers. They would turn the ward lights on at 10am, as opposed to the 7am in adult wards; they know teenagers.
The staff on the unit are amazing. From coming in to my room to administer some chemotherapy, and then staying to discuss last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, to my clinical nurse specialist encouraging me to leave the ward, the staff are one in a million. I owe them absolutely everything.
Teenage Cancer Trust recognises the mental struggle that this illness brings. They provided my mother with a psychologist at the toughest of times, and ensured I had enough activities and companionship to never feel lonely. It was only this year when I felt almost utterly broken that I decided to ask for help. Even though it was three years since my last stay as an inpatient, I was immediately booked appointments with a psychologist. Teenage Cancer Trust saves souls as well as lives and is currently saving mine. I think that all young people going through cancer should be offered support with their mental health.
I decided to do the Virgin Money London Marathon in a bid to raise at least £4,000 for Teenage Cancer Trust. It will be a huge challenge as years of chemo have given my body a battering. I also suffer from a disease called GVHD because of my Stem Cell Transplant. The disease means that my skin is a lot tighter than it should be, my muscles easily cramp, and I don’t have as much flexibility as I should. My legs are probably gonna hurt like hell after two hours of running, let alone four.
I will also be running the marathon a few weeks before my Law Finals at Oxford University; for all intents and purposes I will be doing 100 percent of my degree three weeks after running 26.2 miles. My training schedule will add some structure to my final year as I plan to go to bed early, get up early to run and then study. It’s a lot for me to take on but I want to give back to the charity that’s been there for me 24/7 for the last five years.