Christmas can be a difficult time for Lily Blundell and her family.
Two years ago, she was fighting cancer and a rare reaction to chemo meant she was left screaming in pain on Christmas Day.
Last year, she was still fighting the fatigue and side effects caused by the treatment which had saved her life.
But now in 2020, Lily, from Oxfordshire, is finally feeling well and has been able to start her dream degree course, studying music at the University of Cambridge.
The 23-year-old tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Going through cancer treatment and the reaction at Christmas was difficult for me and my family.
‘Every year, it does bring back memories of that time – but I feel that now, in 2020, we’re starting to move on from what happened.’
Lily first noticed something was wrong on a city break with her mum and brother in October 2018.
She was falling behind as they walked around the city and felt very tired.
When she got back, she went to see her GP but the symptoms were dismissed as just being run down and when she saw a second one shortly after, she was again told it was nothing to worry about.
A few weeks later, in early November 2018, she found a pea-sized lump on her neck, which started to swell up.
She says: ‘I never thought it would be cancer. I had symptoms cropping up but I didn’t connect them together.
‘I was taking exams at the time and I put it down to overworking myself and having a bit of a bug or something.’
Seeking advice from a third GP, he realised that her symptoms matched up with Hodgkin lymphoma and knowing it was more common in young people, he sent her to hospital for x-rays and a CT scan.
She explains: ‘He told me on the day what he thought it was but I don’t think I realised then how serious it was.
‘I didn’t think it would be a cancer where I would have chemo and lose my hair because I thought that wouldn’t happen to me. To me, I was too young and healthy.
‘By the time I got to the hospital and saw a cancer specialist, it started to sink in.’
The next day, she had a biopsy and the results, which came back around a week later, confirmed that she had Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
Lily was given the option of a strong chemo over a shorter period of time, or a weaker chemo over a longer time. She chose the first option.
She was also told that the chemotherapy could affect her fertility and she decided to have her ovary removed and frozen.
The day before chemotherapy, she had an interview for Cambridge and was determined to keep life as normal as possible alongside treatment.
‘It was crazy but I was glad of the distraction,’ she says.
Starting the first round of chemotherapy, she planned to have two weeks of treatment, then a week off, which fell during Christmas, and then continue with the next cycle.
Initially, everything went to plan and she was given injections to take home to stimulate her bone marrow to produce more white blood cells.
She explains: ‘I was told that the injections might cause a little bone pain but it should be fine and I thought I would be able to enjoy Christmas.
‘The first two were ok and I took the third on Christmas Eve.’
That night, the reality of living with cancer hit as Lily realised her hair was coming out.
She says: ‘I was going to sleep on Christmas Eve and realising my hair was coming out in my hands.’
After the injection, Lily was getting a little bit of muscle ache but thought it would pass.
But around 1am, she woke up and found it was much worse, so she walked around and took some pain killers.
After a few hours, she woke her parents up and by 5am, she was screaming in pain.
‘It was like someone was grabbing the bones in my legs and twisting them or something,’ she says.
‘It was a really deep pain and like nothing I’d ever had before.’
On Christmas morning, she tried to distract herself with TV and took more painkillers and hoped it would pass.
She says: ‘We gathered as a family and tried to open presents. I was trying to manage the pain a bit but I’d open one thing and have to keel over on the sofa.
‘We were trying our best to have a Christmas but it was almost impossible. We ended up with a half-done Christmas dinner and by 5pm, we accepted that the pain wasn’t going and I really needed to go to hospital.’
Lily ended up being admitted to hospital for three days, and doctors believe she had a severe and unusual reaction to the injections.
She was given morphine to manage the pain until her body recovered.
When she got home, her family tried to redo Christmas but she was still weak and tired.
New Years Eve was another milestone in her treatment as she had her ovary taken out so it could be frozen, to allow her to have IVF in the future to have children.
Lily says: ‘I was in and out the same day for that but it was quite painful. I was watching the fireworks on the TV while sorting out my painkillers and dealing with the stitches from the surgery.’
After the New Year, she went on to have three more rounds of chemotherapy, with treatment finishing at the end of February.
She said: ‘Luckily we knew I would reach remission by the end of January, so thankfully the treatment was tough but relatively short for me.
‘Once the treatment was over, the cancer was gone but it took a long time before I started to feel really well again.
‘I suffered from fatigue, muscle weakness and brain fog for quite a while.’
While going through treatment, Lily was told the interview she’d had for Cambridge had been successful and she was offered a place to start in October 2019.
But as she was still struggling, she made the decision to delay until 2020.
Throughout everything, Lily was supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust.
She explains: ‘I had a support coordinator and she was really amazing. She visited me in hospital every day and just brought board games and DVDs and talked to us for hours. She just helped us so much.
‘After treatment, she continued to support me for another year. She was actually the one who prompted me to start therapy to help me move on. The charity does really fantastic work for young people with cancer.’
Now, two years on from diagnosis, Lily finally feels like she can move on after cancer and with Christmas 2019 bringing back some difficult memories, she feels celebrating this year will be more positive.
She says: ‘Last year was strange. What happened the year before made it hard to separate Christmas from the idea of me being ill.
‘I find it quite hard to relax and I think my mum felt pressure to make it extra special.
‘It was still lovely but the year before was in the back of my mind.
‘I have done a lot of work over the last year to move on from what happened and I do feel better about celebrating it this year.’
Lily is now doing well and although coronavirus has impacted her university experience this year, she is glad she finally got to start her degree in October.
To make a donation to the Teenager Cancer Trust Let’s Be Unstoppable This Christmas campaign, visit their website.
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