An inspirational British woman whose chest pains were dismissed by medics is now raising awareness of cancer misdiagnoses on social media while she bravely undergoes chemotherapy.
In 2017 fashion communication student Olivia Smith (22) from Southampton in the UK was on holiday on Spain’s island of Menorca in the Mediterranean when she experienced chest pains shortly after taking a sip of alcohol.
Weeks later she made an appointment with her GP who told her there was no possible correlation between drinking alcohol and having chest pains. Nevertheless, she was told to stay away from liquor.
She experienced these pains for a few months before making another appointment and was misdiagnosed with costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage in the rib cage.
A few weeks later Olivia noticed that several lumps had appeared on her neck so she went back to her GP where they referred her to a lymphoma specialist. They did an X-ray which showed she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that starts in white-blood cells called lymphocytes.
She’s since been sharing her journey to recovery on Instagram with her 5 000 followers while receiving chemotherapy treatment.
When Olivia had her X-ray at the lymphoma clinic she’d never even heard the word “lymphoma” before. “It became pretty clear that I did have cancer because the X-ray showed several growths.
Battling cancer at age 22
“The weeks that followed were full of a lot of ‘why me’ tears; I’d fill my drive to work with plans of how I’d tell my family the news and mostly worrying about how ugly I’d look with no hair.
It’s obviously so reassuring to know I have such a huge support network, but I began to feel like an alien.
“People want to be there for you and that’s so kind, but to be so upset that I actually end up consoling them over the situation is frustrating and you leave the conversation feeling down yourself.
“I’ve now replaced the ‘why me’ tears with a strong trust in my journey. I’ve fully come to terms with the fact I’m battling cancer at age 22 and it truly has taught me so much.
“Yes, I feel like cancer has stolen a year of my life. But, Hodgkin’s is curable. I’m being cured. My recent scans show no remaining tumours after only two cycles of chemotherapy.”
A relatively rare cancer
But Olivia still has to go through the full six months of chemo to ensure all of the cancer is gone. She believes everything happens for a reason and that the reason for this difficult experience is so that she can grab life with both hands.
“I believe my future would’ve been entirely different had I not been faced with this at such a young age. I used to be so comfortably numb, but now I feel everything with such passion.”
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a relatively rare cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and glands spread throughout the body.
Around 1 900 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the UK every year.
It’s unknown what the exact cause of this cancer is but your risk of developing it is increased if you have a medical condition that weakens your immune system, you take immunosuppressant medication, or you’ve previously been exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus which causes glandular fever.
In order to confirm a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the most easily treated types of cancer, a biopsy needs to be done.
A battle to be proud of
“I’ve wasted so much time looking for wigs, trips to London trying to find the perfect wig,” Olivia said.
“But one day I realised why am I trying to cover up the fact that I am fighting the hardest battle of my life so far?
“It took me a long time to realise that cancer isn't something to be embarrassed of, but actually a battle to be proud I am fighting.
“I feel so much more confident now that I’m not trying to conceal my cancer, and I’m helping so many other young people fighting cancer to feel the same.
“To know that sharing my struggle is helping and inspiring so many others has made me realise that there was a reason for all of this, and my purpose is to share and spread awareness.”
Privilege to be alive
Olivia said the hardest part of the process has been changing her mindset, and that sharing her journey with the public has helped her come to terms with her illness.
“The mental aspect of this has been the hardest part by a mile. This week I feel I’ve made the most progress I’ve made yet so far,” she said.
“Sometimes you don’t have to step forward to make progress. Sometimes sitting still is the best progress.
“The truth so many people miss is that happiness doesn’t start with a relationship, with a degree or with the perfect job. Happiness is realising what a precious privilege it is to be alive.
“Sometimes there will be sadness and struggle in our lives but we must realise the beauty, we must keep putting one foot in front of the other because you never know what’s around the bend.”
“Make peace with your past and don’t let it spoil the present. I’m lucky enough to be given another chance at life. I’ve fallen apart and, oh boy, am I putting the pieces back together differently.”