A year ago one young girl with strong Donegal connections had everything to look forward to. Life was going exactly as she had planned when an uninvited guest called.
Twenty-year-old Antonia is my niece, the daughter of my brother Raymond Britton from Donegal Town and a girl who had everything in life to look forward to - and indeed she still has.
She is blessed with a great family and unlike many girls of her age she enjoys a long and steady relationship with her boyfriend.
Antonia is currently coping with cancer and undergoing intensive treatment - her positive outlook has provided great inspiration to many suffering from the illness both in the UK and here at home in Ireland.
Speaking to the Donegal Democrat, Antonia talks about her experience to date and how she is dealing with it.
She said, “It was just a routine day racing for work and happily organizing my agenda for the week ahead.
“I work in a large retail outlet in West London, Westfields, and love it with a passion. It always has a healthy influx of customers and is a hive of activity.
“On this particular day I wasn’t up to my usual par but associated my lack of energy and feeling fatigued to the demands on the day. The day was unforgiving and I gradually went from feeling bad to worse, short of breath, nauseous, I don’t remember collapsing, the ambulance was called then rushed to Chelsea and Westminster hospital, this was the beginning of my journey.”
Antonia continued, “I was being put through rigorous tests and scans because medical records showed that three months previous, I had been taken into Hammersmith hospital with a similar episode.
“Their x-rays at the time showed a shadow on my lung and I was released with a diagnosis of viral infection. I know now that this was the first sighting of the lymphoma growing inside me but it just wasn’t spotted.
“On the 1st. February this year I came back to work from a 9 day break. It was around 2pm that I decided I needed time off the shop floor to sit down as I’d felt really dizzy and couldn’t face the demands of the customer. I went into the back and even though I don’t remember it I collapsed. An ambulance was called and that was my introduction to the Chelsea and Westminister hospital.
“I remember the day I found out I was diagnosed with Lymphoma, it was just after lunch when two consultants approached my hospital bed and drew the curtains, everything after the word cancer was a blur, I burst into tears stuck between four curtains and two people I didn’t really know. I wanted to wake up from this horrible dream – it was surreal, it was a terrible shock to the system.
The reality and the sheer shock;
“I knew from this moment my life would change forever - I just did not know how to deal with an illness that in my view would shorten my life
“I was terrified of the unknown and I suppose like most feared the worst outcome.
“Inside it was eating me away and physiologically it took its toll. I wanted nothing more than to shun all the reality and escape from the testing, endless blood samples, and scans. I wanted my own space and became irrational in my behaviour.
“I did try to hold it together for my family but it all was just too much. I had to be medicated in order to restore calm and help remove the anxiety. Everyone, family and friends, reacted emotionally in different ways and no matter what way you try to be gentle when you have to deliver news of this magnitude, it is a bitter pill for those who love you.
“I have to say that I’m so thankful to the doctors and consultants of Chelsea & Westminister for being so thorough and for the compassion, support and medical care that was to reveal that I had cancer and, above all, helping me deal with it.
“Of course this was not the news that anybody wants to hear but the way they have dealt with everything has really just been great.”
Antonia continued, “All of my family surrounded me with love, support and reassurance. I know that they too were going through an awful time and in the same breath telling me that all would be OK - in honesty no one could have the knowledge at that time to substantiate this outcome.
“Your fate is in the lap of the Gods and the professionals who deal with cancer on a daily basis.
“I now know that to arm yourself with as much information regarding your disease is the best course of action for all concerned.
“Ask every conceivable question that comes to mind no matter how trivial, learn from those who know, not the internet or other people’s experiences, as everyone is different by design. I have come to terms and I absorb the positive energy from all that surround me, and seeing people who are worse off, knowing that I have within me the strength and willpower to beat this uninvited visitor, known as cancer.”
Antonia talks of her treatment:
“I’m in the midst of my chemo and yes it is no bundle of fun so there are good days and some, which are not so good, but it is a means to a new beginning. It’s a chance to experience all that life has to offer and believe me that my whole perspective and priorities have changed dramatically since my diagnosis.
“I love life and people and have no intention of letting this beat me. I will do everything that is asked of me and undergo whatever treatments no matter how unpleasant to increase my chances of recovery.”
The inevitable loss of hair
“Losing my hair was something I didn’t expect to happen so quick and for a woman it’s hard but to be honest it became irritating to find clumps falling out and my scalp itchy.
“I called my dad Raymond and requested that he take me to get it cut off.
“I went to his barbers who were absolutely brilliant and persuaded me just to go short and created a style that looked good and boosted my moral. It stayed for about a week and I lumbered him with the task to remove it all, which we made a fun day of and laughed and joked as the rest of my locks disappeared.
“I was bald and hey it didn’t look so bad. We had spent a brilliant evening with my dad, Mariam, James and Mikeala, who are my brother and sister, trying on wigs and just messing around all posing, making each other laugh. “Dad and I had purchased wigs to cover the eventuality of hair loss but to date I haven’t worn one. People do look and I smile at them, which normally generates a smile back. People have complimented my look, and it’s so nice when people don’t make strange. No one can catch anything from me other than a giggle or smiles. It really helps when everyone is normal around you or feed you positives as it restores confidence and boosts moral.”
Continuing she said, “It’s not the cancer that causes the unpleasantness of hair loss and sickness but the medication to get rid of it.
“I know that people truly care and have shown compassion to my personal circumstance, both in England, Ireland, and even in the States, with words of encouragement and well wishes.
“I’m only one little link in the bigger scale of things; a mere spec in the grasp that cancer has, from young to old.
“We all can make a difference, you don’t have to donate a single cent, just give the moral boost with your time and support to anyone who is ill. It will mean so much to them, don’t get me wrong if you can support the prominent cancer trusts with some spare monies, it is really for a good cause and will help hopefully in the eradication of this disease.
“I know that the Irish Cancer Society do unbelievable work and the recent initiatives by all those women in both Ireland and here with their “selfies” has been really great.
“On a personal note I would just love to thank everyone who has contacted me. Their prayers, their encouragement and kindness means so much to me - I have just discovered a whole new world of very caring people. Sometimes it takes a crisis like this to bring out the best in people.
“I hope I can make a difference and somehow that these few words will help someone diagnosed with cancer to conquer the initial anxiety that falls upon them.
“The body’s natural defence is to protect itself.
Remember to knuckle down and arm yourself with knowledge, the type of lymphoma, the grade, cell type etc., and the treatments that you have to undergo.
“Keep positive and in your mind’s eye see it get smaller and smaller as each day goes by.
“I know I can beat this and funny after doing this for the Donegal Democrat, I just feel that I am going to have a whole world of new friends in Donegal.
“A final note - I am talking as one who is fighting cancer - to the many thousands out there who are cancer-free, remember keep checking yourselves for symptoms. An early diagnosis can make all the difference.”
As Antonia’s treatment continues we will keep you updated with her progress.
On a personal note - this is one brave person and hopefully her attitude will provide inspiration to any one person who meets that uninvited and very unwelcome guest.