Life Can Change At Any Minute: How Cancer Gave Laura Her Best Life

Laura May is a music industry professional who was struck down with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011. Unsurprisingly it was the toughest experience she’s ever endured but Laura got through it and developed a mindful perspective in the process. We’re so grateful that she spoke to Voice of Calm about cancer, tattoos, change, grated cheese and living her best life!

Tell us about the early days of your cancer diagnosis

In my case, the cancer started in the lymph nodes in my neck and they just got bigger and bigger. I could actually see it. I didn’t have to wait long for treatment to begin but all I could think about was,

These cancer cells are growing in my body and I have no control over it.

Everything happened so quickly I didn’t really have time to properly digest or even consider the consequences of my diagnosis. I had never before nor since felt so out of control.

Was there ever a moment when you thought you just couldn’t go on?

No, I’ve never considered not carrying on. I just lived it day by day: treatment to treatment. I think even on my worst day I wouldn’t have considered myself unhappy, just unlucky.

My darkest times were in the hospital. I had no immunity so I was stuck in the hospital room and there were no signs that it was ever going to get better. I’ve never felt so isolated and alone.

Treatment must have been tough

It was. The initial chemo made me really sick. I couldn’t stop being sick after each of the first three treatments. No one had warned us that this could happen. I was then admitted with a chest infection for a week and a nurse suggested that I should try a new wonder drug. That changed everything. It’s specifically made for people having chemo and actually makes it impossible to be sick. Once I realised that I was able to eat properly it made the post treatment recovery much quicker.

Losing my hair really stole my confidence. It made me feel as though I wasn’t me anymore. I started treatment just before Christmas, so I had hair for Christmas but it was nearly all gone by New Year. I was crushed at the time: as if I was an onlooker on to this strange life.

Most of the time we just got through every day. It felt as though my life was spiraling out of control and I was living in fear of the results of the next blood test or CT scan. I also lived in fear of dying in my sleep. With low platelets I thought I’d have a brain bleed. I had a cough once and I thought the infection could get out of control whilst I was asleep.

Did you focus on a certain date or reward at the end of your cancer treatment?

Close friends of ours were getting married and the aim was to get to that wedding. The day after the wedding was my birthday and I wanted to eat a take away as I hadn’t been able to for the whole of my treatment. We had KFC – it was awful, but a landmark nonetheless.

A few weeks later a group of us went out for steak – another thing that I couldn’t have until the end of treatment as I like mine medium rare. The year after I left hospital was full of these tiny milestones. I left behind a life of hospital appointments and tried to return to a normal life.

Laura outside Abbey Road StudioLife Can Change At Any Minute: How Cancer Gave Laura Her Best Life
Laura outside Abbey Road Studios.

Has it been difficult to speak to employers about your cancer?

Initally I did keep my illness a secret. In my first part time job someone caught me unaware and asked me about the gap in my CV. I told her the truth and instantly regretted it, fearing she would see me as weak or incapable.

When I took my next full time job my boss knew the situation and I worked on my terms with half my working week being home-based. It wasn’t until I reached the five years clear mark that I posted something about my illness on social media. I realised how much I’d been holding myself back, frightened to live to my full potential in case cancer came and took it all away again.

Nowadays I’m really open about it, I have to be. I still suffer with bouts of chronic fatigue so it’s just easier to be honest with anyone that I’m working with. It’s not something that comes up a lot anymore but I feel like it’s important not to be flippant about it. Cancer can’t rule how I live my life but of course it does still have an effect.

Laura May and Adam. Life Can Change At Any Minute: How Cancer Gave Laura Her Best Life
Laura and her husband Adam who was with her every step of the way.

You are 7 years clear now. How has life changed?

I was signed off from the hospital and the parting advice from my consultant was never smoke again and always wear sunscreen – a bit Baz Lurmann but I’ve stuck to it. Apart from that I try to do exercise when I can. I actually ran a half marathon in 2016 – pre cancer me wouldn’t have even considered this.

Collage of Laura in her first 5 years post treatment
Collage of Laura in her first 5 years post treatment

There have been a lot of goals since – we bought a bungalow and then undertook a major renovation. I left a job and started my own publishing company.

I’ll never forget where I’ve been but it’s important to look forward. The anniversary of my stem cell transplant is 19th April, which is the date that the doctors use to calculate the time I’ve been in remission. Every year my husband and I mark it with a celebration of some sort, just to remember what we’ve been through, how far we’ve come and how exciting the future is.

Nurse holding stem cells. Life Can Change At Any Minute: How Cancer Gave Laura Her Best Life
Steve, a hospital physician, holding Laura’s stem cells.

You have been through so much. What do you feel cancer taught you?

Whilst I was ill I lived in fear. Everything felt out of control and I became a bit OCD. I also grated cheese on everything just to get some calories in and keep my energy levels up a bit. Living like that for 5 months during treatment and then a year recouperating left a bit of a mark! And it took time to overcome that.

I’ve also managed to break my cheese habit! I was used to being a stick that could eat anything now I’m heading towards 40 I can’t do that any more.

I am acutely aware that life can change at any minute so I try not to waste any time being miserable. For example, I have left jobs because I don’t like being micro managed. I know I need to have freedom to do a job how I want to do it.

I’m not a complete germophobe but I do avoid a buffet still. I noticed too much when I was ill to ever eat off one again. People can be disgusting!

What life advice do you give people?

My biggest breakthrough has been learning not to worry about things I have no control over. I have a tattoo on my arm to remind me to live my life with no worry. It’s hard not to worry at all but I found that becoming fit and healthy and strong made me feel ready for anything ahead of me. I don’t worry anymore because I’m sure that I can tackle anything that comes my way. Now the tattoo is just a reminder of where I have been and how far I’ve come.

Rosy periwinkle from Madacascar Tattoo
The rosy periwinkle flower from Madacascar is used in the chemotherapy treatment Laura received.

Always speak to someone about anything that you have on your mind. I used to ask a lot of questions. I had to know everything about what was happening to me and what the possible consequences were. Head in the sand is not the way forward, it can just leave you feeling anxious!

Never google anything for an answer. There are some websites that have nothing but the worst case scenarios and reading this can really have a negative impact.

Don’t be afraid to be selfish. Sometimes you just need to concentrate on you before you can even begin to think about anyone else.

Take each day at a time.

Own your problems and don’t let them become you. I was afraid to tell anyone of my illness as I thought they might pity me or think I was weak. That’s not the case. I’ve actually learned that how people perceive you depends on how you tell your story.

There is no need for anyone to pity me, I’m still here – living my best life!