Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Wednesday, 14 September 2005 14:59 UK

'I had a rare cancer at age 16'

By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

Chris Salmen
'I'll never forget the day I was told I had cancer'

When Chris Salmen qualified as a pharmacist, he had no doubts about where he wanted to work and what he wanted to specialise in.

As a teenager Chris had survived a particularly rare form of cancer - lymphoma.

Now, as a newly qualified junior oncology pharmacist based at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, Chris, is able to put his life experiences to good use.

Not only will he dispense medicine, but he will also talk to patients about their drug regimes and treatments.

"I decided to become a pharmacist because I would be able to work alongside doctors and see the cancer patients.

"I know what it is like to have cancer, and I wanted to be able to talk to the patients about this."


Chris, 24, said he would never forget the day doctors diagnosed his cancer.

One day he was normal 16-year-old GCSE student, the next he was fighting for his life in a hospital isolation ward.

"Up until that day I had been a 16-year-old deciding what college I was going to go to, but after that day everything changed. I hadn't thought about dying. You don't at that age.

"But now I had to starting thinking about whether I was going to live until the next day."

Lymphoma is a general term for cancer of the lymphatic system
The lymphatic system is part of the body's immune system, made up of a complex network of lymph organs including bone marrow, the thymus and the spleen
The lymphatic system is filled with a fluid called lymph, which carries nutrients, waste and white blood cells (lymphocytes) around the body
When lymphocytes develop abnormally or fail to die when instructed to, they can collect in the lymph nodes and form tumours
There are many different sub-types of lymphoma, which are divided into two main types: Hodgkin lymphoma (Hodgkin disease) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Over a short period Chris had become very ill. He had been finding it harder and harder to study, and began to find it almost impossible to get through the school day without a rest.

Medics initially though Chris might have glandular fever, but as time went on he got sicker and sicker.

"I had lots of pain, in my teeth, my arms and my bones. I had pleurisy and started being sick quite often.

"I had really bad night sweats and when I rolled over in the bed it would wet through with sweat.

"I got worse and became almost bed-ridden."

His GP found a mass in the lower section of his stomach and said he would need to go to hospital immediately.

An ultrasound revealed that there was a five inch tumour in his bowel, which had to be removed.

But Chris, who was very ill, was still oblivious to the seriousness of his condition.

"They took the tumour away for a biopsy, but I still thought that it was something like a twisted bowel. I thought it was just going to get better.

"I will never forget the day that they told me that I had cancer.


"The consultant just said that I had a rare type of lymphoma - Burkitt's lymphoma, a Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL) and that I was going to need chemotherapy, that my hair would fall out and that it would affect my fertility.

"As you can imagine that all knocked me for six."

Because Chris had such an aggressive form of cancer, and because it was so advanced, he needed to spend six months in hospital.

"He found the treatment regime harsh, and often felt worse than before his diagnosis.

"The chemo is probably worse than having the cancer itself. It is like feeling the worst you ever have. It is like having flu on top of being very sick, on top of having a migraine.

"When you are sick you know you will probably feel better the next day, but I knew I would not be feeling better for a long time.

Painless swelling in the neck, armpit or groin
Night sweats
Unexplained fever
Weight loss and tiredness
Coughs and breathlessness
Persistent itching all over the body

"In those few months of treatment I grew up very quickly because I knew I had to face-up to this."

After treatment Chris was still too sick to complete his GCSE's, so hr was awarded them on his previous marks.

He staggered his A' level exams, and achieved the grades he needed to train as a pharmacist.

He said being able to offer support to others would mean something good had come out of his terrible experiences.

"It was a really difficult and hurtful time and this is why I wanted to do something to help other people. I did not want anyone to go through this alone," he said.


"I just want to help other people and limit their suffering."

"My cancer was an awful thing for me to go through, but having had that experience in my life has changed me for the better.

"Obviously it is not something I would have wanted to happen, but it did."

Professor John Gribben, haematology consultant at Barts and The London School of Medicine, said patients like Chris needed to be diagnosed as soon as possible to give them the best possible chance of survival.

"This is a life-threatening condition which can be treated, the greater the awareness of the symptoms, hopefully the more lives can be saved."

"People need to understand the symptoms of lymphoma, as they can be difficult to recognise and mistaken for other less serious illnesses, such as flu.

"If people become more aware of the symptoms of lymphoma, then they are more likely to seek medical help earlier to either reassure them that they do not have the condition or receive treatment, ultimately improving prognosis and quality of life."

"Early diagnosis and treatment of lymphoma can save lives. That's why it is so important that people are able to recognise the symptoms of this potentially life-threatening disease and encouraged to seek medical help."

World Lymphoma Day is on September 15, 2005.

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