Isabella Consiglio

Isabella Consiglio

Winnipeg MB

It's amazing how this community provides support and comfort during challenging times. Keep shining your light and stand strong as we fight blood cancers alongside each other!

When I was 17 years old, I was in my Grade 12 year of high school and a competitive dancer where I had been dancing for the past 14 years. My friends and I had just begun our second semester of our senior year, and we were ready to start celebrating the end of our time together as classmates. I had a lifestyle that always had me on the go. If I wasn’t at school, I was dancing, and if I wasn’t dancing, I was spending time with my friends and family. My fast-paced lifestyle suddenly came to a halt.

On February 12th of 2017 my parents decided to take me to the emergency room. I didn’t want to go as I had only been experiencing flu like symptoms for a few days before. I had just thought that it was something that would pass. At that hospital I did blood work which was terrifying for me at the time as I had hated needles and the idea of blood. I learned to get used to this very quickly. After completing bloodwork, I was taken in very fast. My mom had stepped out of the room for a moment when we got the results back. The doctor said he would come back when my mom returned but my dad and I had insisted that it wasn’t a big deal as we had not anticipated what was about to happen. The emergency room doctor had sat down next to me on the bed, and I knew in that moment that this was something more serious than we had originally thought.

The doctor said that he ran my blood test multiple times because he could not believe the results came from a seemingly healthy 17-year-old girl. A normal white blood cell count is anywhere in between a 4.5-11. My white blood cell count was over 625. He had explained that he already called Health Sciences Center, that they had a bed waiting for me there, and we immediately got transported and admitted to the GD6 ward at HSC. I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. We had learned that this is a very fast-growing type of blood cancer and we had to act fast as I only had a matter of days left. My hospital room became a constant revolving door between the doctors, nurses, friends, and family. I knew what this diagnosis meant, but I didn’t let it phase me. I simply said “okay, so what do we have to do next?” I knew I could not change my diagnosis, but I knew that I could decide how I wanted to approach it as my entire world was changing around me.

The next day consisted of pokes and prods, constant tests and sampling, and getting a PICC line inserted. This was only just the beginning. I had planned on cutting and donating my hair after I graduated high school as it was something I had done in the past and I had been growing it out to do so again. I had my hairdresser come to the hospital and cut my hair so it could still be donated before we started chemotherapy. Although this time, cutting my hair had a much different meaning to me. My curly hair has been a defining feature of mine for my entire life, but I knew I was no longer the girl with the curly hair, I was now known as the girl who has cancer.

We had started my first high dose cycle of chemotherapy on February 14th, 2017. This was the start of IV chemotherapy, radiation, pills, spinal taps, needles, blood transfusions and bone marrow biopsies that continued for the next two years of my life. The doctors and nurses I had made this part of my experience a whole lot more tolerable. I truly believe that they are like no other and some of the most amazing human beings I have ever come across. The compassion and care that not only myself, but also my family received was incredible. They went out of their way to ensure I had the best care possible. It was usually the little things that meant the most: like while taking my vitals we would watch shows together, covering up the pole with a blanket that had my blood transfusion on it because I did not like the sight of it at the time, and hugging me on my bed as I cried because my hair had started to fall out. The love and support I received made it bittersweet when I was discharged after a month and a half and continued the remainder of treatments at CancerCareMB.

At CancerCare I was met with even more amazing people who never hesitated to provide me with compassion and support. I got to know some of the nurses and doctors quite well as I was going for treatments that would last for hours, multiple times a week. The cancer and aggressive high dose cycle of chemotherapy caused me to become too sick and weak and landed me back at the GD6 ward for another month and half. At this time my body had become too frail to fight and we had to stop treatment. I always had a go with the flow attitude about my diagnosis and treatment, but this was when the realization truly hit me. When I looked in the mirror and I no longer recognized myself as I had now weighed 80lbs, my skin was pale and dry, my features had sunken in, and I no longer had my long curly hair. At this time, I could not leave my bed. It’s hard to distinctly separate the days I had spent at the hospital during this time as I spent majority of my time sleeping because my body was exhausted. However, with such incredible care, I was nursed back to a healthy enough state that I could be discharged and start receiving treatment once again.

My high school graduation day was not like anything I had imagined, but I was so happy I was able to graduate with my friends. My life had been put on pause; I knew that this is what I needed but it led me to feel alienated from everyone around me. I watched their lives progress through monumental moments as the most movement I got was from the bed to the couch. I was still so happy for my friends, but I had felt like everyone’s lives around me was changing and I was standing still in place. I lived vicariously through the stories my friends would tell me when they would come to visit me.

My friends support truly does means the world to me. I always knew if they were coming to visit, I was definitely going to be entertained and distracted from the reality of my life. They took time out of their days as busy teenagers to always come visit, check up on me to make sure I was okay, and continue to support me to this day. Not to mention the outpour of love and support from family, neighbours, and teachers that my family and I received during this time. I like to think that I’m the luckiest girl in the world because I have an incredible support system and I couldn’t thank everyone enough.

I watched as my illness took a toll on my family’s life as well. Rearranging of schedules and events to accommodate for how I was feeling, postponing milestone moments, preparing meals and leaving work behind to be able to care for me. I often got praised for my strength during this time in my life, however it is my parents who deserve it. Their lives were disrupted the same way as mine, if not more as they watched their child fight for their life. This is because cancer doesn’t just affect one person. It flips worlds upside down and it does not discriminate. Cancer did not care that I was about to embark on what would’ve been known as the “best years of my life”.

After an extremely long 2 years and 3 months filled with highs and lows, I was officially cancer free on April 3rd of 2019. I often say that if I could go back in time, I would not change a single thing as it was surprisingly one of the best and worst moments of my life. Being defined as the girl who had cancer no longer holds the power it had when I was 17. It holds a new power. A power that shows strength, courage, and resilience. I would not be the same person I am today without my diagnosis. As I believe that everything happens for a reason, I would be in an entirely different place. I would not have the same outlook on life or have discovered pursuing a career in social work. In hopes that I could work with other sick kids and help someone who may be going through a similar experience to mine or provide comfort to a family facing an illness. However, the effects of cancer do not end when treatment is complete. There are side effects that I will continue to face for the rest of my life and memories that will follow me forever. My journey has taught me so many valuable lessons. Life is too short to not cherish each moment whether its happy, sad, or scary. I learnt to do what you’re afraid of and that its okay to feel scared but to face it head on and take things as they come.

My team of doctors and nurses have made a huge difference in my life and continue to change the lives of others. I would also like to thank my friends and family. Without you I could have never done it. Most importantly, thank you to my parents for saving my life. No parent should ever have to face this burden. With continued research and funding, I hope to see a day where no child or family has to face this disease. Any contribution makes a massive difference in someone’s life and I can guarantee that. It does not go unnoticed. Cancer affects everyone so; I encourage you all to do what you can as it will impact the lives of others. Even if you aren’t able to make donations, be kind to people for you never know what kind of battle they may be facing. The impact of these events and organizations saved my life and continue to save others. 
I would also like to thank the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for allowing me to share my story and represent Light the Night Winnipeg this year. I am truly honoured for this opportunity as this community has brought me so much comfort and inspiration over the last 7 years. It's amazing how this community provides support and comfort during challenging times. Keep shining your light and stand strong as we fight blood cancers alongside each other!