Health Stories

My runny nose was cancer

So brave!

Steph Ogden, 19, never imagined that her cold symptoms were deadly.

She told that’s life! about her journey with lymphoma and how it taught her to never take things for granted.

Waking in the middle of the night, I was covered in sweat. It was February this year, and I’d felt fine when I’d gone to bed after hanging out with some friends at their place.

Now, though, my nose was runny and my throat was full of phlegm.

I must be coming down with the flu, I figured.

Aged 18, I was rarely sick, and usually shook bugs off quickly.

Working at McDonald’s around studying to be a nurse, I didn’t have any shifts rostered over the next five days.

If I just lie low, I’ll be back to normal in no time, I thought.

Still unwell two days later, I bought some cold and flu tablets from the supermarket, and curled up on the lounge to watch movies with my mum, Michelle, 49.

‘How do you feel?’ Mum would ask, checking on how I was.

‘The same,’ I kept answering. Three days later, though, I had the sniffles and a chesty cough.

Visiting a GP, I assumed I had a chest infection.

Examining my throat, the doctor said it was swollen.

‘It looks like a sinus infection,’ he concluded, explaining I should drink water and keep taking my cold and flu tablets.

‘I’m sure you’ll feel better soon,’ Mum reassured me back home.

Me before my diagnosis (Credit: Supplied)

The next day, my throat was irritated, but I felt well enough to go to work.

But, getting ready in the bathroom, I tasted blood in my mouth.

That’s weird, I thought.

I spat into the sink and noticed a tiny splatter of blood on the white porcelain.

Not thinking much of it, I wiped down the sink and headed off for work. By lunchtime, though, my throat felt red raw and I texted Mum to tell her about the blood.

Working as a receptionist at our local hospital, she convinced me to come in for a chest X-ray.

Leaving work, I went to Emergency and Mum met me there. To my shock, the X-ray revealed my lungs were quite swollen.

‘It looks similar to what is typically found in a patient with lymphoma,’ the doctor said, explaining I’d need more scans to be sure.

Tests showed I did have an infection, though.

‘You’ll need to be admitted to the hospital so we can start you on antibiotics,’ he added.

Confused, I’d never heard of lymphoma, so I assumed it was the type of infection I had, and Mum didn’t give me any reason to think otherwise.

Two days later, I was still feeling very sick, and I’d also been diagnosed with pneumonia.

That’s when I was transferred to Princess Alexandra Hospital, Qld, for a lymph node biopsy.

I was kept in for monitoring for two weeks and then the results finally came back.

Nothing could have prepared me for what the doctor said.

‘I’m afraid you have stage two Hodgkin’s lymphoma,’ he told me, explaining that it was a rare cancer of the lymphatic system.

How could this be happening, I thought. It’d only been a runny nose. Now I had cancer?

‘I had no idea,’ I cried to Mum, distraught.

‘I thought there was a chance they might be wrong and I didn’t want to scare you,’ Mum said, admitting she’d known all along what lymphoma was.

I also found out it’s often called a ‘silent killer,’ as the symptoms – a runny nose, cough and night sweats – are easily confused with less sinister illnesses, such as flu and infections.

Most people are diagnosed after they break out in lumps or rashes, so I was grateful my cancer had been found early.

‘You will have to undergo immediate chemotherapy,’ the doctor told me.

The chemo could affect my fertility, but as I needed treatment right away there was no time to freeze my eggs. Instead, I’d have hormone injections to try to protect my ovaries.

I began my first round of chemo within an hour.

Me, Mum and my brother Ben (Credit: Supplied)

Two months into my treatment, patches of my hair started falling out in my bed.

‘It’s not fair,’ I cried to Mum, gutted.

While most of my friends were going out for drinks and letting their hair down, mine was falling out in clumps, and I felt rotten after chemo sessions.

‘You’ll get through this,’ Mum assured me.

The following week, my best friend, Abby, 20, came around to help me shave my head.

‘You’re the only person who could look good bald,’ she smiled afterwards.

She knew exactly what to say to cheer me up. Still, I couldn’t help but feel as if people were staring at me when I was out in public.

So I got a long, blonde wig to help boost my confidence.

Incredibly, in June, after my fifth round of chemo, I was declared cancer free.

But I still needed another three rounds, as well as radiation therapy, to ensure it didn’t return.

Seven months on from my diagnosis, I’m doing great and feel lucky to be alive.

And I’ve found a supportive partner, Josh, 19, who I met at the pub.

Though I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone, it’s helped me never take things for granted.

Life is short – live every day like it’s your last.

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