Hope, disbelief. Happiness, sadness. Sweetness, bitterness. Love, heartbreak. Since being diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003, this has been Katerina Tzikas’s journey with cancer. A journey that has seen her diagnosed at a young age, numerous treatments, a miraculous recovery and four relapses. And now as she faces life with two terminal cancers; this may extinguish her hope but her strength, honesty and love for life is still well and truly alive.
Katerina was first diagnosed with cancer at 33, the age I am right now. While Katerina talks, it’s hard not to think of your own mortality, the plans you are making and the life you envisage that could be all stripped from you through a simple diagnosis.
“One thing this has taught me is that you might think you have control of your life … but we have very little control. We think we can plan everything to the nth degree and it will be perfect. I wish that was the case, but I have found out in a harsh way, it’s not.”
Three years after her first diagnosis in 2003, and whilst in remission, she was diagnosed with a more aggressive type of lymphoma. Katerina told me that as a cancer patient, survivor and as someone in remission, the dreaded feeling of ‘it’ coming back remains a constant.
At this stage, she was so unwell, that to complete chemotherapy she required a bone marrow transplant. It was then, through the sheer merciless and unrelenting nature of this treatment that she tried to take some control back.
The transplant forced Katerina into isolation. Katerina found her own way to stay in touch and to cope. Whilst in hospital she made sure she had the Internet access so her friends could keep her updated with all that was going on in her life. She kept her friends updated on her treatment.
“Every now and again I would get on (the Internet) for five minutes and would collapse. I remember having a look back at some of the emails I wrote and the spelling was just atrocious – it was like I was dreaming and writing at the same time.” This communication was the only way Katerina could stay connected. And she wanted to know everything, the mundane and all.
“One of the things I found tricky with this illness, was that people feel bad about talking about their problems with me,” Katerina explains. “They say ‘I don’t want to worry you’, but I think ‘we’re friends’. You share good and bad with your friends.”
It’s hard to think that through the relapses, this woman still remains strong and doesn’t let illness define her. She speaks frankly about how she remains, not so much positive but, realistic.
“You just take one day at a time. I know for me having that goal of working towards this month and getting through each day at a time.
“I guess that hope that what I am doing is helping me, it’s hopefully going to give me a cure or more time here. I think that helps focusing on that… and the lovely people around me.”
Katerina says matter-of-factly that the illness has been a long journey for her family and friends, particularly her parents who always remain hopeful that “something miraculous” will happen. There was a time when it did. Katerina began a clinical trial run by the Peter Mac foundation. Katerina was in palliative care planning her death at the time, but this miraculous treatment rid of her of the lymphoma.
After the first scan,” the doctor had to get the radiographer to check it a few times because he didn’t believe it either, it was a miracle”. ” It was such a huge relief and it’s really hard to describe how amazing that feeling was. I remember my mum cheered the doctor, it was very overwhelming.”
Her mum and dad have remained by her side through every step of the way – hospital visits, appointments and through all things in life. “It’s been a long journey for all of us and mum and dad have been amazing. My parents are very practical too, and this journey has taught them a lot. They are very focused on enjoying today and dealing with what comes, when it comes.”
Dealing with what comes, when it comes, has been the past eight years of Katerina’s life. She knows living with a neuroendocrine tumour, that has spread to her liver, the odds are against her. And with the initial devastation that comes with the first diagnosis, struggling to come to terms with it and make peace with it, Katerina has now found her own comfort.
“I found a balance for myself because, as cliche as it sounds, I had always been a very spiritual person and I could never reconcile my spirituality with Greek Orthodox, so I found a place to do that works for me.
“When I think about death – there is a bitter and sweet part about it. The bitter is I am leaving all of this – the people I love. I wont be here to see my nieces and nephews and godchildren grow up and that’s sad, but the sweet part for me is I feel like I am going back home, to where I’ve come from; and there is a real loveliness in that, which gives me peace.”
“That’s what death feels like it is going to be for me. I get to go home; life is like a great party that you don’t want to leave but at some point you have to go home, and even though you regret having to leave, when you get home you think- ‘Oh, thank God I can relax now and just rest.'”
Katerina Tzikas is putting on an event Dancing For Life to raise money for the Peter Mac foundation. The event will feature live musical performances by Meyhane, Habibis and Rebetiki with guest musicians Fotis Vergopoulos, Stavrina Dimitriou and John Poulakis. At the time this went to print the event was sold out but you can contact Katerina on 0409 862 613 to buy raffle tickets. For all donations to Peter Mac visit petermac.org