Everyone knows that it’s good to talk but sometimes when you are overwhelmed by something, sharing the details can be almost too painful. However, Roxana Nicoleta Dumitru knows the true meaning of ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’, as the 23-year-old has just been through a very gruelling few years after being diagnosed out of the blue with leukaemia and enduring a long treatment programme. The experience made her realise that she wants to devote her future career to listening to others who are going through something similar.
n November 2018, while working as a flight check-in attendant at Dublin airport, Roxana Nicoleta began feeling very sick and knew that there was no way she could continue her busy shift. So she reported to her line manager and was sent home.
The next morning, she didn’t feel any better and went to her GP who diagnosed both a chest infection and an ear infection and prescribed a course of antibiotics. She also had an abscess on her upper left thigh but didn’t mention it as she thought it was linked to the other ailments and would clear up with the medication.
This, however, was not the case and just a few days later, she made another appointment to see her doctor as the abscess had grown rapidly and it had become extremely uncomfortable for her to walk or sit down. “I was told to go to the hospital to have it drained,” says Roxana Nicoleta, who lives in Navan. “The nurse mentioned that I was very pale, and I remember getting a bit upset about that as I didn’t think I was pale at all.
“Then they decided to take some bloods and a few hours later, I was told that they need to take some more as the previous one had coagulated. Then I was told that they had to take blood a third time as they didn’t think my blood count seemed right. I wasn’t sure what was going on and a doctor was asking me loads of questions, but I just said I was fine and needed to have the abscess drained.”
But the doctor wasn’t convinced that this was the only problem and told Roxana Nicoleta that they were concerned about the results of her tests and they were going to refer her to the Mater Hospital in Dublin. “I arrived there at 2am and they took some more bloods and I really didn’t know what was going on at this stage,” she says.
“A lovely nurse took lots of samples from me and then I was kept in overnight and in the morning, I had a bone marrow biopsy done. By this point the abscess had burst of its own accord and several hours later, my mother and I were in the room when the haematology team came in and told us that I had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
“I didn’t know what exactly it was, only that it was some sort of cancer and that I would have to have treatment which would make my hair fall out — that was my biggest worry. My mother, however, knew more about it and because no-one in my family has ever survived cancer, she fainted straight away. One of the nurses brought me to the family room to try to distract me while the rest of the team took care of my mother.”
Discovering she had leukaemia was a huge shock to the young woman and while doctors worked on a treatment plan to restore her physical health as effectively and as quickly as possible, her emotional health was taking a battering.
“A few days after being diagnosed, the team had come up with a plan to get me into remission and I was told that I would spend a few weeks in hospital,” she says. “Then after induction treatment, which lasted 28 days, I was told I was in remission and then stared on consolidation. This was so tough on my body and I lost mobility quite a few times. I was also unconscious for quite a few days and the nurses eventually moved me into the room next to their workstation, as they did all they could to try and get me back. My mother was by my side 24/7 throughout the whole ordeal and they did everything they could to try and make sure that she was fine too.
“I was in in-patient for seven-and-a-half months and during that time I also underwent chemotherapy and had my appendix removed. I spent no more than two weeks at home over that period and I was discharged on June 11. Of course, the physical side of it all was very hard, but I was being looked after very well and they also sent several counsellors and a social worker to talk to me and listen to what I was going through. But while it was undoubtedly a positive thing, I didn’t feel like I achieved much out of it as they hadn’t been through cancer so didn’t really understand what it was like for me.”
Roxana Nicoleta returned to the hospital as an outpatient a few weeks after being discharged so she could begin the next round of treatment which didn’t end until February of this year. And it was during this time that she began to visit other cancer patients to listen to their stories and to try to offer support from the unique perspective of someone who has been through the disease.
“While I was at the hospital as an outpatient, I visited people on the wards as I wanted to do something to help others while I was there,” she says. “Initially, everyone was very quiet and sick looking but as soon as I went in and started chatting to them, I could see that they became visibly happier and looked better, just from the experience of talking to someone who really knew what they were going through.
“It made me see that I could do something to help sick people as I could see the difference it was making to them. I decided that I would like to try to do something that would change things for people. I couldn’t go back to work in the airport, firstly because of Covid, but also because I wouldn’t be able for the shift work and most importantly because there is a lot of radiation there.
“I knew that I wanted to continue working with the public and some people suggested that I might like to train as a nurse. I didn’t think I would be able for that job, so I decided that I would like to train to be a counsellor for patients with cancer. I saw during my treatment that there is a real lack of people who know how to interact with cancer patients, and I realised that counselling would be a brilliant thing for me to do as I really could make a difference to their lives and their recovery.”
Roxana Nicoleta is due to start a counselling course in September and would encourage anyone who has recently been diagnosed to open up about their feelings, whether it is to a professional or to friends and family. “My advice to others going through cancer is to take every day as it comes and if that is too much, just take half a day at a time,” she says. “I would also encourage them to talk to someone, explain how they feel and most importantly, to never be ashamed of their illness.
“The emotional side of a major sickness is almost as big as the physical side and many people can suffer emotionally when it is all over. But sometimes people think that they don’t need or want counselling and that they are strong enough to deal with it on their own. I would encourage these people to go for it as it is always beneficial.
“We all need support, and even when people think they are well able to cope without the input of others, it always helps to have someone to talk to and someone to listen to what you are going through. Speaking as someone who has been there, I would really encourage people to open up to someone and when I am qualified, I hope to be able to help make a difference to how well someone deals with the after-effects of cancer. It’s good to remember that the emotional side also needs some looking after.”
For more information see materfoundation.ie