To an outsider, 26-year-old Charlotte Cox appeared to be living the dream. She was enjoying her gap year and had just embarked on the trip of a lifetime around South East Asia. Little did she know, however, that her world was about to be turned upside down.
“Looking down at myself in my bikini, all I could see was my huge, swollen stomach,” she told The Mirror. “Bloating was nothing out of the ordinary for me – for the past two years I’d had crippling tummy pains, which had been dismissed as ‘just IBS.’
But this time around, Charlotte’s intuition told her something was very wrong.
“When I put my hand on my stomach I could literally feel something pulsating in there,” she added. “The pain was so bad I could barely stand. It felt as if an alien was growing inside me and trying to rip its way out. I’d been working as a nanny and I’d gone from being full of energy to permanently exhausted. I was so tired I’d fall asleep in my lunch hour.”
“A couple of times [the pain] was so severe I went to A&E, doubled over in agony. I’d be waved away with yet more IBS medication.”
Backing herself, she cut her trip short and booked a flight home to London to get another opinion. This time, her test results “lit up with tumours.”
“I knew my body wasn’t right two years ago,” she wrote on her blog at the time. “I should have gone with my instinct, I should have persevered.”
There was a 15cm mass inside Charlotte’s abdomen, so big it was pressing on her spine and kidneys, as well as a 3cm tumour behind her heart and a 5cm tumour in her neck that had also spread to her bone marrow. Her doctor diagnosed her with non-Hodgkin follicular lymphoma – a type of cancer which grows inside the lymph nodes.
“I’d never even heard of lymphoma, but as I Googled it I felt more and more angry,” she told The Mirror. “It’s the most common cancer in people under 30. I’d had several key symptoms for years, yet not one doctor had even thought it could be a possibility.”
Lymphoma can’t be surgically removed from the body, although radiotherapy can sometimes help with early intervention. But unfortunately for Charlotte, her condition was so advanced that it was deemed incurable. Still, her doctor recommended she undergo chemotherapy.
“My sister, my incredibly brave, supportive and positive sister came out of that room with an energy of defiance,” she said. “I would beat this, this was one thing that I couldn’t run away from that I had to face head on.”
Determined to overcome her health set back, Charlotte completely overhauled her lifestyle:
“Adventure filled plans, boozy nights and carefree fun was replaced with biopsies, fertility treatment and chemotherapy.”
But the ‘alien’ inside Charlotte didn’t take well to the chemo. “The tumour was so big it attacked my organs as it broke down, leaving me hospitalised on an isolation ward for a fortnight,” she told The Mirror.
“I kept on fighting. I might have been a chemo zombie but as the swelling in my stomach and neck began to shrink, I loved feeling I was kicking this evil alien’s butt. I had never felt so ill and yet I had never felt so alive.”
Charlotte followed up her six-month course with two years of immunotherapy and incredibly, is now in remission.
“My lymphoma is going to come back – it’s a when, not an if – and although it’s strange and scary knowing that, I just have to keep getting scanned and I’ll deal with it when it happens,” she said. “I don’t ask about the prognosis.”
She also wants her story to serve as a warning to others to always trust their gut when it comes to your health.
“I’m doing everything I can to should to the world about lymphoma. I want people to know what the symptoms are and feel empowered to say to their doctor, ‘Could it be this?’"
“This should never have happened to me and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to others,” Charlotte added. “The day I get an email saying I’ve helped a young person get an early diagnosis it will be job done.”
Charlotte has since set up a charity to raise awareness for the cause. You can find out more at Lymphoma Out Loud.