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  • Jenni
  • 30th Sep. 2021

The ultimate explorer

Jenni was just beginning a new adventure as a second-year Otago University student when a diagnosis of cancer turned her world upside down.

“I had been feeling very fatigued, but put it down to poor sleep habits, but then after a tramping trip with friends where I had experienced a fever, dizziness, and failing vision, I went for a check-up. After I underwent a needle biopsy, surgery, a PET-CT scan, and a whirlwind of medical appointments, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“The shock of it being cancer shut me down, and I remember not feeling anything. My first thought was ‘oh no, I’m going to have to drop out of uni and move home’.

“I was particularly scared about losing my new friends in Dunedin and feeling like I would be moving backwards in life if I had to go home. I had worked hard to build my life in Dunedin and didn’t want to lose it all!”

“The shock of it being cancer shut me down, and I remember not feeling anything."

Jenni worked alongside her cancer care team to remain at university whilst undergoing treatment. Even with the support of her new friends, Jenni’s entire life had changed, and it was hard for others to relate to what she was experiencing.

“I had an incredible network of friends. But it was still a challenge being so publicly vulnerable.

“People were nervous around me during treatment because they didn’t know how to act. I had a PICC line (a tube that went to my heart for chemo infusions), so it was obvious I had cancer, even when wearing a beanie to hide my baldness.

“I had no one to talk to that could help me understand whether the things I was going through were normal or people who would fully understand my experiences.”

"A big side effect during treatment was nausea and vomiting, so my friends bedazzled a bucket for me."

As Jenni found, cancer can affect many areas of your life, from friendships and study to hobbies and socialising.

“My hobbies took a huge hit, as they were centred around being a very active, outdoorsy person. I went from climbing mountains on the weekend to struggling to walk a few metres down the hall to the bathroom.

“I was determined that nothing would change due to my cancer and treatment. I was convinced that I could be the same person I was before and jump right back into my life like nothing had happened.”

Jenni connected with CanTeen so she could build up her support network and gain support from people who could understand what she was experiencing.

“CanTeen helped me form a group of friends who can relate to my experiences, and we’ve learnt from each other about how to live after cancer.

“I also joined a psychosocial support online event for survivors, which was a tremendous help in moving on after treatment and learning how to jump back into life when you feel all different and out of place.”

The impacts of cancer don’t just end after treatment. Jenni felt the effects of her diagnosis long after treatment ended and found it difficult that friends couldn’t understand.

“The hardest part for my friends to relate to was life after treatment. They didn’t know that the effects of chemo had totally knocked me down and kept saying things like ‘I’m so glad you’re all better again’ – when I definitely didn’t feel like myself. 

“Life after treatment has been really tough. I keep getting frustrated at not being able to do the things I could do before treatment.

“Even a couple of years on, my fitness is not what it used to be. But I’ve been regaining my strength, coordination, and balance through rock climbing, and my fitness through tramping and running, which has helped me to manage my side effects.

My self-confidence and sense of self-worth also took a huge hit and I started pushing myself harder and harder, trying to convince myself that I was okay now and that I could value myself again. I even completed the Dunedin full marathon a few months into remission because anything less wasn’t enough to convince myself that I was recovering.” 

“I was trying to jump back into the exact person I was before treatment, and it took some time to accept that I have changed, but that this is a good thing and that I’m stronger for my experiences.”

Jenni is still the ultimate explorer – taking on leadership opportunities within CanTeen and now beyond, as she’s now starting a new adventure across the globe.

“I’ve found it really rewarding being a CanTeen leader and giving back to help other people with their cancer journeys too.

“This year I’m starting my PhD at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Focusing on autophagy (the cellular recycling system) in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and it’s particularly interesting because changes in autophagy function are a common occurrence in cancers.

“I don’t think I’d be in the same position without CanTeen’s support. CanTeen helped me develop the tools I need to deal with challenges and a group of friends and role models to support me through my cancer journey.”

Once an explorer always an explorer…

“I grew up spending a lot of time in the mountains and forests and at the beach and it’s still the place I go back to when I need a break from normal life or some time to think and reflect.”