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Part One: Boxing Day, bloody noses and a burst appendix

This story is a first-person account, contributed by a member of our wonderful community – all words are their own.

I never expected a few mouth ulcers and exhaustion to result in a leukaemia diagnosis. 

Rowena in Novermber 2016, a month before her AML diagnosis
Rowena in November 2016, a month before her AML diagnosis.

It all happened so quickly in the lead up to Christmas 2016. I was hosting Christmas Day and busy cleaning up the house and doing the shopping, as well as taking care of my two-year-old daughter, Haylee.

But I could barely keep my eyes open each day and so I asked my partner, Trevor, to take me to the hospital. I was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).on 22 December. I was 34. 

Living in Goulburn in country New South Wales I was given the option to go to Sydney or Canberra for immediate treatment. My parents lived in Canberra so that’s where I went.  

Rowena with daughter, Haylee.
Rowena with daughter, Haylee.

I spent Christmas Day with Haylee, knowing I would be starting chemotherapy the very next day on Boxing Day. 

Humour me

Some people take it to a dark place, some people take it to a different place, well I take it to a place of humour.  

I don’t think people actually realise, or even want to know, the terrible things those with leukemia or any cancer have to deal with. 

Putting a humorous spin on it, something they can relate to, makes people pay more attention. I think if you take it too seriously, people just disengage and won’t even talk to you.  

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Waking up and finding hair all over your pillow, seeing it thinning like crazy and falling out in shower is one of the most confronting things to deal with as a woman – hair today gone tomorrow!  

My hair came out in clumps, so I had my dad bring his clippers and shave it off.  

Hair today....gone tomorrow
“…one of the most confronting things to deal with as a woman”. 

He enjoyed doing it while my mum tried to hold back the tears watching. As I do, I found the humour; I told her I needed a light globe because I looked like Uncle Fester. That made her laugh.  

Once it’s gone, I knew I would really look like a ‘cancer’ patient, and that made it so much more real. 

In the nosebleed section

Rowena suffered a six-hour nosebleed during her first round of chemotherapy.
Rowena suffered a six-hour nosebleed during her first round of chemotherapy.

The minute you go through chemotherapy treatment you’re at risk of serious bleeding. 

In my first round of chemotherapy, I had a six-hour nosebleed. The medical team kept feeding me platelets and I constantly needed ice on my head.  

They were giving me medication to clot the blood, but I was swallowing so much. Because I was taking tablets to stop the bleeding, I ended up throwing up clots the size of golf balls.  

Even now, I hate sneezing for the fear I’m going to get a nosebleed. 

A real kick in the guts

No one tells you about the intense gut issues you’ll get from chemotherapy. Mine were so wrecked from the treatment my appendix ruptured, and I had to have emergency surgery.  

Rowena being wheeled out of hospital by her dad on her discharge day, 19 January 2017.
Rowena being wheeled out of hospital by her dad on her discharge day, 19 January 2017.

Those three rounds of chemotherapy tested me. I was not only having to navigate a whole new world of blood cancer but also the extreme physical and mental challenges that came with it.

Despite all that, I thought I had closed the cancer chapter of my life, and I was glad to be AML-free by the end of January 2017.  

Little did I know, I would only enjoy that freedom for two short years. 

This is part one of the four-part series, ‘Rowena’s journey: Real and raw’. In her own words, Rowena McLean shares her harrowing four-and-a-half-year blood cancer journey in the lead up to World Blood Cancer Day, 28 May 2021.

Click here to read ‘Part Two: Needing some magic from ‘Mr Potter’  
Click here to read ‘Part Three: “If your daughter could save your life…would you ask her?”‘
Click here to read ‘Part Four: Fight for the ones you love and yourself’

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