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Helping cancer-hit young people lead normal lives

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Nimra Shahid (26) from Kingston-Upon-Thames, who was diagnosed with cancer six years ago, is sharing her experience to raise awareness of the long-term impact of cancer on young people.

As April is Teenage and Young Adult Cancer Awareness Month, she is working with the charity Teenage Cancer Trust to advise young people on how to rebuild their lives after being diagnosed with cancer.

The information provided on the trust website is based on the firsthand experience of young people aged 13-24 who have been through cancer and the expertise of the charity’s specialist nurses and youth workers, who together support thousands of young people every year.

Various studies suggest that people who have experienced cancer when they’re young are more likely to develop mental health conditions in later life, and it can impact their studies, careers, personal relationships, and their ability to live independently.

In August 2017, during a trip to Pakistan, Nimra fainted and there was a lump on her neck.

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On her return to the UK her GP did some tests and found there was nothing of major concern. A few months later in December, she became unwell during a family holiday to Morrocco.

Nimra said, “I fainted again at the airport in Morocco. I could feel myself going – vision fading, with my body going limp and heavy – just like the first time.”

The family became worried and after returning to the UK, she was taken to a local hospital.

Nimra said she went to an ear, neck and throat consultant. After examining her he looked concerned.

“After a blood test and a biopsy, I waited a week for the results. On January 31, 2018, on my follow-up appointment, I could tell it was bad news just from the look on the doctor’s face,” she said. The doctor told her she had thyroid cancer.

“I didn’t process it at first, but I remember my dad looking stressed. The whole ride home was in silence because we were both trying to process how we were going to tell the news to my mum and my siblings,” she said.

Nimra underwent surgery to remove the tumour, which was the size of a ping-pong ball.

She tried to lead a normal life after the surgery, but she began suffering from intense anxiety and began worrying that she might faint again.

She became fearful of leaving her house alone and it adversely impacted her life.

She found it difficult to travel to university. “I would travel by taxi and friends would meet me when I arrived. I did not want to go anywhere on my own, so I would take a family member with me. I stopped going out of the house alone for anything other than essential trips. Anxiety got so scary for me that I did not leave my house for over six months.”

She tried therapy but it was not helpful.

In 2021, her nurse got her in touch with Kate, a clinical psychologist from The Royal Marden’s Maggie’s Centre. “It was a pivotal moment. Kate taught me how to be at ease with my anxious thoughts through cognitive behaviour therapy and how to ground myself when thoughts were snowballing. The two months of online sessions that I had with Kate completely changed my life.”

Nimra also had support from a Teenage Cancer Trust Clinical Nurse Specialist who referred Nimra, a keen runner, to another charity called Trekstock and they helped her regain fitness.

“Life after cancer is tough, and at times harder than the treatment itself, but by reaching out and seeking help it will aid the process and make it easier,” she said.

“Everyone’s path to recovery is different, and sometimes processing it will take place much later on in your journey, like it did for me. Just keep going because there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if you cannot see it now, keep going until you do,” she added.

Teenage Cancer Trust Chief Executive Kate Collins said, “Reaching the end of treatment is a major milestone for any young person with cancer. But moving forward from cancer can be equally challenging – the physical, psychological, and emotional impacts can be felt long afterwards.”

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