A little bit about you:
Name: Naeem Budhwani
What was/is your diagnosis?
What was your age at the time?
What is something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
I’m proud of finishing my final months of co-op and last year of university during chemotherapy.
A few months before I was diagnosed, a friend told me of someone in her lecture who was going through chemo. I questioned why anyone would bother staying in school in such a predicament. Fast forward to a couple of weeks after my birthday when a doctor told me of the mutiny being staged inside me. Happy birthday to me! I suddenly knew why my friend’s lecture mate trudged on with lectures. It’s because everyone likes being in control and no one likes being told what to do. Cancer was telling me to stop my life and that just didn’t compute for me.
“Cancer was telling me to stop my life and that just didn’t compute for me.”
I carried a textbook into my first chemo session; this was the height of my denial. I quickly realized this was unsustainable as I fell asleep in the chemo chair under the lull of IV Benadryl with an unopened textbook slowly sliding down my lap. I asked my employers to work remotely, did most lecture readings in the morning hours as I got tired earlier in the afternoon, and used every university accommodation under the sun. I ended up with graduating on schedule with a double major on dean’s list!
What is a top item on your life to do list?
Going to space!
What are your hobbies?
Reading, canoeing, mindfulness meditation.
What was your life like before your diagnosis?
Normal university-life things: partying, lectures, boys (prioritized from highest to lowest). #WesternUniversity #PurpleAndProud
How did you find out you were sick? What led to your diagnosis?
One evening, a friend asked, “What is that growing on your neck?!” When I went home, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, staring in confusion at a lump between my left collarbone and my neck. I then ran to my computer to surrender the remainder of my sanity to WebMD. Some clicks later: Cancer – Hodgkins Lymphoma. I had every one of the listed symptoms.
The local walk in clinic prescribed me antibiotics to no avail. An ultrasound, MRI, and biopsy followed. By now, three months had passed from the WebMD reveal. A doctor told the culprit would be one of the following: tuberculosis, cancer, or an infection. The biopsy confirmed Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
“Do I need to do chemo? What are my chances of survival?”
My walk-in-clinic doctor didn’t know the answers to these questions. Despite some attempts to mindfully meditate in the doctor’s room, I was in a frenzy and forgot my protein shaker bottle on the walk in clinic’s receptionist’s desk. Spoiler: I never went back for the bottle.
Part of me knew this moment would come, and perhaps that part of me was prepared, so I didn’t break down. I drove straight to work, brainstorming of how to break the news to my mentor, boss, and the rest of my team. I asked for the rest of the day off and went home to Google the crap out of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I also called the cancer centre I was scheduled to visit, pulling out all the sweet-talk skills I’ve picked up at Western to move up my appointment date. Then, I called my parents. They left work immediately and drove hours to be by my side in Waterloo.
In which hospital(s) are/were you treated?
Waterloo’s Grand River Hospital, London’s Victoria Hospital, and Toronto’s Princess Margaret.
What did your treatment consist of?
- Two cycles of ABVD kicked it off
- Six-week break before getting a PET scan showing residual disease
- Two additional cycles of ABVD
- PET scan showing tumour halved in size, but still lurking
- 20 days of radiation. 30Gy with a boost of 40Gy to the metabolically active site.
- Three-month break
- PET scan revealing the tumour site on my neck resolved but now has spread to the spleen.
- Three month wait for the splenic site to become large enough to biopsy and confirm the disease
- Three cycles of GDP
- PET scan showing no evidence of disease (NED)! Finally!
- Autologous stem cell transplant
- 20 days of consolidative radiation of 30Gy to the spleen
There are two-week breaks between ABVD infusions. During the first week, I would wake up in the morning as restless as if I had not slept at all. I vividly recall sitting across my friend at a Tim Horton’s table before morning lecture, holding a cup of coffee and completely not in the zone. Miraculously, by the second week, my energy levels resumed to normal as if nothing had happened. The radiation carried no impairing side effects.
The GDP chemo was more sinister, with extremely high doses of dexamethasone causing crazy withdrawal in each of the three cycles. I have never felt anything more unpleasant in my life. My mom would sit on my bedside and play soothing music or read a book. That definitely kept me afloat.
The autologous transplant that followed was physically challenging and the closest I’ve felt to death. I lost a lot of muscle, was on a lot of codeine for pain management (mucositis), and not able to see any of my friends. Being isolated from my friends was definitely the most stressful aspect.
What is your current medical status?
No evidence of disease / Remission
“Being isolated from my friends was definitely the most stressful aspect.”
Life after cancer:
How is life different for you now post diagnosis?
I was never much of a runner until I was diagnosed and found out that aerobic exercise is the best thing you can do for your heart and your brain, both of which were under siege from the chemo. I ran a 10K as I wrapped up my final exams. Running remains a critical part my life. Without it, I would feel depressed and lazy.
Since my diagnosis, I found that I live more deliberately. I noticed that most of the things I was filling my day with were things I would do even if it were my last day to live: going to the gym, hanging out with friends, being curious and asking questions, helping others.
What is/was the toughest part about having cancer as a young adult?
Walking around with my bald head.
In the winter months, I hid it away with a cap. This was until I got an email from a job to which I applied. They invited me to get-to-know-you drinks and I was expected to dress up. This meant no hat, and this meant a big problem. I immediately started clicking through various wig stores in the area and even called a few. I decided soon after that I wouldn’t alienate myself further from my own body by engaging in a fool’s game of dress-up. Bald is how I was, so bald I shall be. Not wearing a hat at the dinner was shocking; and it shocked me into confidence. It was a confidence that I took with me right until my hair grew back. I also got the job!
What really helped/helps you to keep going while you were/are sick?
Being around friends and family.
What kept you/keeps you busy during treatment?
Netflix. Nightly journal. Daily mindfulness meditation. Blogging on Medium.
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada? How did it happen?
I attended an Adolescent & Young Adult (AYA) cancer meet-up at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre right after I found out of my relapse. I met people who grew into friends, one of whom told me about YACC and introduced me to an organizational representative.
Did anyone talk to you about fertility options before treatment? If so, how did that affect your decisions? If not, what do you wish you had known?
Yes, I banked my sperm.
Has your cancer diagnosis affected any of the relationships in your life? If so, how, and how are you managing them?
As all folks dealing with cancer in the social media age must decide: to post or not to post?
As with Facebook posts about natural disasters or tragedies, cancer “coming-out” posts are quickly decorated with comments of thoughts and prayers, but far less comments committing productive action. Besides, ain’t nobody need no pity!
I phoned those closest to me and broke the news. I kept it under wraps. When the treatment wasn’t working as well as we’d hoped, stretching this into a much longer affair, I couldn’t bother putting in the effort to keep up the secret. I could only wear a hat in my Instagram pictures for so long! The news trickled down to others. Of course, I didn’t expect people whose relationship with me revolved around partying to sign up to support a cancer patient through thick and thin. On the flip side, I’m so grateful for the acquaintances that flowered into rock-hard friendships.
How has your cancer experience affected your body image, and your relationship to your body?
I lost a lot of weight during my stem cell transplant. There were times I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror, especially when I had a Hickman line temporarily inserted in my chest wall so I could have the stem cells injected. Having my rib cage prodding out was no pleasant sight either. On the road to recovery, I’ve met others whose cancer robbed them of a leg or other limbs, which makes me feel so grateful for my body.
Resources and recommendations:
What would you add to a treatment-day playlist?
Yes, I am shamelessly plugging my own SoundCloud.
Which books/movies/podcasts/TV shows/etc. would you recommend?
The 100, The Expanse, The Silk Roads.
Are there any other resources you’d like to recommend?
I highly recommend mindfulness meditation for stress-reduction. I would be lost without it. www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc
Stay in touch:
What would you like to say to other young adults dealing with cancer who are reading this profile?
Expect nothing. Appreciate everything.
Are you interested in helping others facing cancer challenges? If so please let us know how you can be contacted.
Email [email protected] and we’ll forward your message to Naeem!
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Medium Blog: https://medium.com/naeemb