My name is Jennifer Holmes. I have worked as an emergency room nurse in an inner city hospital for the past 20 years. In April 2021 at the age of 44 I was diagnosed with Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma, a form of Non Hodgkins Lymphoma. I completed treatment at the end of October 2021 and have been in remission since then. Although I am early in my recovery, I am focused and determined to rebuild my physical, mental and emotional stamina in order to get back to work and enjoying the things I did before, maybe even more this time around. I became involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada while completing my radiation treatments when I was able to fundraise and participate in the Light the Night event and was awarded the rookie team of the year. I am grateful to be recognized for this accomplishment and acknowledged as this years Honored Hero for the LLSC.
On March 26, 2021, I went to work as I always did, not letting on to anyone that I was potentially facing my own health crisis. Work was a distraction to limit the anxiety I was feeling after finding a lump in my right breast. I was referred to the breast clinic at Princess Margaret Hospital where I underwent my first mammogram, followed by an ultrasound then a biopsy because there were “abnormal cells” in the border of the mass. In my mind, I already knew what it was, but it was a matter of what kind. There were a few people that knew what was going on and continued to tell me “everything is going to be fine, it’s not going to be cancer”. But that’s what people say when they don’t know what else to say. And how could I have cancer? I look after people who do for a living. Two weeks later, it was confirmed.
The first few days were rough, I couldn’t eat because I had no appetite and sleep was rare. There were just so many consuming questions. I immediately took a leave from work which left me with feelings of guilt as I felt that I was abandoning my colleagues in such a critical time during the pandemic, but I knew they would understand. I had my appointment with my hematologist the next week where I was given an explanation of what type of lymphoma I had. It was aggressive, but luckily very responsive to treatment. I’m not sure if anyone has ever smiled and cheered at their initial oncology appointment, but I did when I was told that my cancer had a very high cure rate. That’s all I needed to hear. Of course there was a very small part of me that was scared. My career and purpose was dedicated to looking after others going through times like this. I have held the hands of patients and their loved ones at their time of loss. I have lost my own friends and family to cancer. Then there are the others. The ones who push through the adversity and challenges to come out alive and well. That’s who I was going to be. Determined, I vowed to keep my focus on staying strong for myself, my friends and my family, even if that meant hiding my fear behind a laugh or a smile.
The next week was bloodwork and additional scans to look for any spread of the disease. There were a couple of “satellite” spots near the primary tumor, but it did not change my plan for treatment or staging. Four days later I had my first chemotherapy session. I knew one of the nurses in the chemo unit because we used to work together, so she met me that day when I checked in and got me settled in which eased some first day jitters. This was followed by 5 more rounds for a total of 6, one every 3 weeks followed by 15 sessions of radiation. The side effects are not unexpected, it’s just a matter of how severe and when they will happen. Nausea was fairly constant, I got flushed and my heart would pound when I took my steroids, dry mouth, loss of taste buds and of course hair loss. The hair loss was not what I expected, it was actually worse. My scalp became painful and itchy. The hair didn’t just fall out strand by strand, instead it came out in handfuls. It was not always easy to find a solution to control the side effects, but this one I could. Instead of crying every time another section of hair came out on my hairbrush, I put the clippers into the hands of my sister and we shaved it off. This was absolutely liberating. It provided me with a sense of control when you feel you have very little. Being bald wasn’t so bad. I had been wearing my hair in the same ponytail for the past year and a half. Now I got to experiment with hats, scarves and wigs. For anyone who knows me, I’m a girl who loves her accessories!
Being in treatment during the COVID pandemic has also created unique challenges. I had an understanding working in healthcare of the isolation that patients can feel at the hospital. Appointments and treatments had to be attended alone. I always had to wonder how individuals that were not as familiar with the medical system navigated through this. I was fortunate to have the knowledge and expertise to ask the questions I needed and to advocate for myself Going places like stores or restaurants felt even more risky. Even getting together with friends and family created an anxiety I didn’t expect about being exposed to a contagious virus with a weakened immune system. Despite all of this, I was surrounded by an outpouring of support from those same friends and family. I had a group of friends from work that got me out on walks, sails on the lake and backyard hang outs. Meals and treats were dropped off on my doorstep and the frequent check ins were a constant reminder that I wasn’t alone, even on the days I felt like I was.
I am now trying to return to my life without cancer. Going through cancer is hard, what comes after it feels even harder. There is no pamphlet they give you that provides instructions on how to recover. It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance to overcome the various traumas that you are left with. Some may be physical, some emotional. It takes time, but it gets better little by little, day by day. There seems to be some belief that you are supposed to become a new or different person than you were before. I don’t see it that way. I liked who I was before. I just want to be a better me.