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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK
'Losing my hair was the worst part'
Charlotte Esler
Charlotte says losing her hair was tough

Charlotte Esler, daughter of the BBC journalist Gavin, talks about her experience of dealing with cancer.

She was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last November at the age of 14, and, after months of treatment, she is now in remission.

"For at least nine months before I was diagnosed, I started getting really bad breathing problems.

"It sounded like asthmatic breathing. We had just been on a hiking holiday, so I noticed it a lot then, and I was convinced I had asthma.

"If I got stressed, I'd get a tightness in my chest and in my back.

"I was in bed for a couple of days, and eventually I started thinking that this was really strange.

"I went to the doctors. They listened to my chest and said. "It's completely clear, so you're fine."

"But I kept going back, and eventually I got sent see a paediatric consultant. They did various tests and X-rays and heart scans.

Shadow over lungs

"They were all clear except the X-ray, where they saw a white shadow over my lungs. But I was convinced I'd moved when they were taking the X-ray.

Charlotte Esler
Everyone knows you've lost your hair - what you trying to prove

"Then I came back for another more fancy type of scan, called a CT scan, and they said that there was volume in the shadow.

"They called me in to the paediatric inpatient department, and said: "Come prepared to stay the night."

"That was pretty scary, because the uncertainty was the worst bit.

"They said that they weren't sure exactly, but it was either leukaemia or a lymphoma.

"At the time, I thought they were joking, because I just didn't see why I'd get cancer: I don't think I'm ever going to smoke, and I eat healthily and we don't have anything hereditary.

"I went to University College London Hospital, because they have a specialist adolescent cancer ward, which was really cool.

"I stayed there for about a week and a bit, for diagnosis and biopsies.

"Eventually they said that I had Hodgkin's lymphoma. They told me if you're going to get a cancer, lymphoma's probably the best of the bunch because the treatment period is quite concise: it was only four months.

"I thought it was one of those things where only lucky people survive, but it turns out that - particularly with children - there is an amazing prognosis - 70%, or something, of children are completely cured forever.

"When it's given a name, then that gives you a sense of security, because at least you know what you've got, and people know how to treat you.

Hair loss

"They give you a two-week lot of chemotherapy, and then they'll give you two weeks off.

"The worst bit was definitely losing my hair. I think it's worse if you're a girl because obviously most girls have longer hair than most boys so you've got a lot to lose.

Charlotte Esler
I did want to be as normal as possible

"They do provide you with the free, nice, NHS wig but I chose not to wear that because, it never looks like your normal hair.

"Also, everyone knows you've lost your hair so what you trying to prove? I chose to wear a beanie hat instead.

"You get left with these really straggly witch-like bits.

"I could have shaved them off but I didn't want to do that because you've just seen all your hair fall out so it seems weird to speed up the process yourself.

"I do think that losing your hair is an indication that you have cancer. It's what people attribute to cancer. If you are just vomiting all the time, you're just sick.

"I did want to be as normal as possible because people think you're sick and if people think you're sick, people take advantage of you because they know you're a weakling.

"Obviously there was vomiting, and really, really awful muscle pain, from your lower back, to about your mid-calf, which lasted for ages.

"They give you all these restrictions on what sort of painkillers you can take. You can't take anything with Paracetamol in, because it mucks up the blood results.

"So you can only take codeine, which is actually better than Paracetamol, but tastes pretty foul.

"As a secondary infection, I got gastroenteritis. On chemo, because of your low immunity, you have a really low white blood cell count. So you just can't fight it.

Going to school

"I carried on going to school because I thought that I may not get any long-term side effects from the actual treatment but if I don't go to school it's quite clear what they are going to be - I'm not going to do as well as I can in the future.

"I still have the same perspective that I had when I was well, I still want to go to university.

"I thought I'm not going to let cancer stop that. Why should it? Why is that fair?

"There's a 95% chance that I'm cured forever which means that there's only a 5% chance that it comes back which sounds minute.

"But the chances of getting cancer as a child is something like one in every 500, so compared to that, 5% sounds like a massive figure.

"I think there'll always be that fear.

"The word 'cancer' has sort of changed its meaning. Before it was a really shocking word to hear.

"It's still scary but I'd say probably not as scary.

"Now I think I could give like my friends and family a lot more advice if they got it, and also I could be able to empathise with them."

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