At 15, Rabia was losing weight, bruising easily and coming home from school exhausted every day. “I wasn’t able to walk up a flight of stairs without catching my breath or feeling dizzy,” Rabia explains.
“I would come home from school and just go straight to bed. All my friends and family thought it was the stress of exams. I went to the doctors a number of times, and when I did get finally diagnosed I was rushed into hospital. I think they caught it just in time.”
coming to terms with diagnosis
Rabia was diagnosed with high-risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), and the shock of her diagnosis took time to sink in. “I didn’t know what cancer was, to be honest,” Rabia explains. “I was quite naïve. I thought I’d just go back to school the next day.”
The news reverberated through Rabia’s family and friends, and she had phone calls and emails from all over the world. “It was a big shock to my family, especially for my brother and sister, who had never experienced anyone in the family going into hospital. During treatment, I sort of became the youngest because they would always be watching over me and looking after me.”
the disruption of treatment
Rabia’s treatment for ALL took two years to complete, during which time her mother gave up her job to care for her, and her father reduced his hours. “It was just a complete disruption to all our lives,” Rabia says. “My grandparents were living with us at the time, so they took on a lot of the responsibilities of looking after my younger brother and sister and taking them to school, while my parents concentrated on trying to get me through the initial phase of treatment, which was quite full on.”
“For the first year, I had to come into the hospital three times a week for treatment,” Rabia explains. “That involved coming in the morning and staying until about 4.30pm. I felt unwell all the time. In the second year I still had to go into the hospital once a fortnight and for the last six months, once a month.”
dealing with side effects
Part of Rabia’s treatment involved radiation therapy, which caused her to feel tired for long periods of time. “I was just sleeping constantly for a few months, just getting up for water or bathroom breaks,” says Rabia. “That was a big hit because I couldn’t concentrate for long periods and going to school was quite tough. I had a lot of the work sent home to me, and the education worker at the hospital would help me stay on top of the important things.”
keeping up with school
An ambitious student, Rabia had dreams to graduate from the University of Melbourne and work for one of the "big four" banks.
“I did end up trying to go back to school about three or four months into my treatment because I missed my friends. I went in about once a week for a little while. Having those friends and being around that environment, even if it is only half a day or a day, just brings up your mood a bit more and helps you cope with being in the hospital environment or at home for so long.”
While still on treatment, Rabia ended up skipping Year 10 altogether and starting Year 11. “I was a bit nervous and I wasn’t sure whether I would keep up. I only did four subjects in each year rather than the usual six, which was still a struggle but I managed to get through it with all the support I had.”
Along with fatigue, Rabia’s treatment also caused her to develop cramps in her hands, making writing difficult. Rabia’s social worker encouraged her to look at Redkite's education support options. "At the time I wasn’t really interested...I was a bit down,” Rabia remembers. “But she kept telling me about how great they were and to just have a look. In the end, I was lucky enough to receive some help from Redkite which was great." Rabia ended up using her scholarship from Redkite to buy a digital device to make note-taking easier.
While finishing treatment might seem like a positive milestone, Rabia explains that it comes with its own challenges.
“All my friends had their first jobs, they were earning money, they were out there socialising. It was hard to build my confidence back up. You would constantly be reminded if you needed to go to appointments or if people around you were sick.”
“It was like you were between two worlds,” Rabia adds. “You are better, but you still need to be a bit cautious until your immunity builds up.”
on being a young person with cancer
Rabia says being a teenager with cancer is particularly tough because of its impact on some “peak points” in life.
“It’s your friends, your family, your career, your education,” she explains. “I was at the height of being socially involved with so many groups. I was discussing what my career path would look like, what I would have to do in my education to reach that career path.”
“Having cancer I felt like my whole world crumbled. Your appearance changes, you lose your hair, you lose a lot of weight and you’re not feeling well. It’s really hard to build that up again and by the time you have, your friends and community have sort of moved on.”
Now 25, Rabia has achieved her dream of graduating from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Commerce. She is currently working as an analyst at one of Australia's major banks, is a proud Redkite volunteer, and has a son, Elijah.
“I think if I were to give one piece of advice to young people like myself, I would tell them to keep dreaming and keep setting goals. It may seem like the end of the world, but it’s not. I think the one thing which kept me going was my dreams, my passions and the goals I had set. So keep your goals, keep your dreams and share them with people. I’m pretty sure they’ll love to support you in any way that they can.”
- November 2014
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