‘But I’m so young’: Briony Benjamin was used to feeling a bit ‘icky’. Then her parents made her see a specialist

OPINION:

The day before my life flipped upside down, I was at work in the Mamamia office as an executive producer of video and I loved my job: it was seriously fun, getting to come up with amusing and impactful video ideas, star in them and often watch them go viral.

I’d meet and interview celebrities and experts as well as work on high-level digital strategy; not to mention the never-ending supply of cakes, treats and freebies that rolled in the door from brands and clients (it was very hard to be #sugarfree in that office).

I worked with a team of the most gorgeous and kind women I’d ever come across, who were whip-smart, hilarious and always stylishly dressed – normally in some combination of designer clothing and sneakers, and often featuring lots of sequins and sparkle.

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On this day in particular I’d curled my long blonde hair. I’d just had a spray tan and was wearing bright colours and bright lippy to compensate for feeling like a heavily caffeinated zombie.

I remember my boss Mia Freedman walking past my desk in a characteristic fully sequined number and saying, “Gosh, you look amazing!”

“Thanks. It must just be the spray tan,” I joked.

I might have looked good, but on the inside, I felt rotten.

Feeling awful had become my new normal. I was so used to always being a bit icky and tired that I had started to believe that this is how I would always feel. Perhaps this is what becoming an adult felt like?

I had become an expert at compartmentalising pain, putting on a smile and just carrying on. When people would ask me how I was, I’d reply “I’m great!” because it had become really boring, month after month, saying to friends and colleagues “Ugh! I feel awful/sick/tired/like an achy deflated balloon.”

Or if I did say that, they’d often reply, “Yeah, I feel really tired too,” and so I just stopped telling them. I didn’t want to be Briony the Buzzkill.

Besides, the doctors were telling me I was fine, that perhaps I was just “stressed” and needed to rest more.

But no matter how much I rested, meditated, ate vegetables, Marie Kondoed my room, drank the recommended water intake, stopped trying to consume the entire internet before bed, cut alcohol/caffeine/sugar/dairy/gluten/anything remotely fun, took vitamins and did mindfulness puzzles, I could just never get on top of the pervasive tiredness that had become a constant in my life.

I was having sweats at night and always felt a bit crappy, but otherwise I appeared quite healthy. My body was sending me all the signs, but I didn’t yet know how to listen and trust it.

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A very busy and important day

I found myself sitting in the waiting room at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney one very normal Thursday morning to get yet another set of test results.

After a year of feeling really crappy, my parents insisted I go to a haematologist (a blood specialist) to get another opinion. I thought it was overkill, but I agreed. The specialist ordered some scans, more blood tests and a biopsy, and I didn’t really think too much about it. Surely if the news was bad, they’d call straight away?

A week later I was there to get the results, expecting another dead end. Mum had insisted on flying down from Queensland and coming to the appointment with me, despite my protests. I was just going to race straight to work afterwards, I was too busy to hang out and had a jam-packed day. I figured it was a waste of a trip for her.

As I sat there with Mum waiting for my number to be called, I scrolled through work emails and planned the day ahead. I wondered how bad the traffic would be and how late I’d get into the office.

My ticket number flicked up on the screen, so I put my phone away and Mum and I made our way down the corridor where we met Dr Annmarie Bosco. She greeted us warmly at the door of her brightly lit, white-walled office and welcomed us to take a seat.

Gently she said, “So we need to discuss the results of the biopsy, it does show the Hodgkin’s lymphoma your parents were concerned about. I’m so sorry.”

I took a sharp breath in, not yet comprehending what this meant. She explained that it was a type of cancer of the lymph glands, part of the body’s immune system.

Cancer? What?

She gave me a moment to process the shock. Mum reached for my hand and held it tightly as we looked at each other in disbelief.

“You’ll need to start treatment as soon as possible, so we will need you to clear your next three to six months. And, yes, it can be cured.”

To gauge how bad it was, I could only think of one question: “Will I lose my hair?”

“Yes,” she said kindly, “but it will grow back.”

My initial thoughts went something like this:

– WTF?????????

– Clearly there has been a mistake!

– How can this be happening?

– But I’m so young?

– My hair …

– OMG I’m going to be bald …

– What if I have a weird-shaped head?

– There has definitely been a stuff-up.

– How am I going to tell my sisters?

– This is a pretty good excuse for being late to work.

– How am I going to tell my boyfriend?

– Perhaps they switched my results with someone else

– No wonder my squash game has gotten so bad.

– My hair, my beautiful hair: this can’t be real.

– How am I going to tell my friends?

– Is this a prank?

– Can I start today over?

– FAAAAAAAARRRRRRKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!

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The rest of that consultation is a blur. I was so grateful that Mum had ignored me and come to the appointment (let’s call it mother’s intuition).

She held my hand tight, we called Dad and put him on speakerphone and Dr Bosco gently talked us through the immediate next steps. More tests. Blah blah blah … IVF … Blah blah blah … I took out a pen and pad to take notes, but my mind was already somewhere else. Everything slowed down and a calm numbness came over me.

As I left the consultation, I looked down at my notepad. The only thing I’d written down was, “don’t get pregnant”. Helpful.

Nothing else that had seemed important that day mattered anymore. I held Mum’s hand as we walked out of the hospital into the warm sunshiny Sydney day, where surprisingly the world hadn’t stopped.

Frantic people rushed by, disposable coffee cups in hand, glued to their phones; cars honked, their stressed drivers racing around doing their busy and important things. Didn’t they know none of it mattered?

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In a daze, Mum and I walked to a pharmacy on a bizarre expedition to buy pregnancy vitamins. I took out my phone, but this time it was to call all the people who were most important to me, one by one.

Stuff racing off to work, we decided instead to go and have lunch by the sea, sit in the sunshine and watch the waves roll in. None of these things had been on my to-do list that morning.

The trivial worries that had consumed my mind earlier that day like the fact that my eyebrows are not quite even or what I was going to wear to that party next week had evaporated. All that really mattered was how much more time I had on this planet, what I wanted to do with it and who I wanted to spend it with.

Hello curveball.

• This is an edited extract from Briony Benjamin’s book Life is Tough But So Are You, which is out now through Murdoch Books.

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