Manon van Buren (33) could kick herself for being so careless. Cancer wasn’t something she would worry about, as a twentysomething turning thirty. Her life changed dramatically on December 23, in 2015. While celebrating life in Berlin with a dear friend, she received a call from her doctor. ‘My GP started crying and told me I had to return to The Netherlands immediately. They found cancer.’ Manon, who normally has an answer for everything, dropped her phone and blacked out.
It’s that one word that seems scarier than the word ‘death’: cancer. This month, we would like to share some stories with you that matter. Like, for example, Manon’s incredible journey. She’s been declared cancer-free. Manon: ‘Now it’s my time to spread the word. Get. Yourself. Checked. I never showed up for any cervical screening program. You should. I told my friends I would defriend them if they wouldn’t get themselves checked. So they all did. This feels like my mission.’
What happened just before you got that call?
Manon: ‘I wasn’t feeling too well. To make it more clear: the alarm bells started to ring in my head when I found out I bled heavily during sexual activities with my Tinder date. That happened on Saturday, I called my GP on Monday, I had an appointment on Tuesday and had to come back on Wednesday. I didn’t think much at the time and went off to Berlin.’
‘The weird thing is, just before we took off, my friend and I discussed possible scenarios for what would happen if the plane would crash. It was my first flight after the Germanwings Flight 9525-disaster, a crash which was caused by the suicidal co-pilot. My friend told me it takes 30 seconds for your body to recover from the shock.’
Manon: ‘My doctor told me I had a 14-centimeter tumor in my womb and the doctors weren’t sure if it had spread to other parts of my body. She told me I’d had no chance if they caught my tumor six months later. The chances weren’t too good now either. My survival chances were 30 per cent.’
‘As adrenaline was running through my veins, I started counting. 30, 29, 28, 27… I don’t know if it’s placebo or it really works, but the counting helped me to find inner calmness again. It was 10:45 AM. My friend and I bought champagne and we drank it.’
14 centimeter, that’s insane
Manon: ‘It’s huge. Usually, cervical cancer develops very slowly. It could have been in my womb for eight or ten years. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), a common sexually transmitted infection. There are HPV tests that are used to screen for cervical cancer. In the Netherlands, all women aged 30 years are invited to get screened. Most women do. I didn’t go.’
What concerned you most?
Manon: ‘I want kids, someday. Most women with womb cancer have surgery to remove it. My worst nightmare. Most doctors told me that there wasn’t another option until I met a doctor from Belgium. He told me he could try a new treatment which could save my womb. The downside: the whole process would be full of risks and it would be extremely painful. I said yes, immediately. I had nothing left to loose.’
‘For nine months, I had very heavy chemo treatments and different surgeries. The pain and nausea were temporary. The desire of having my own children was something nobody could take it away from me.’
How did you fight your way through chemo?
Manon: ‘Chemo is true hell. In the end, I guess all the cliches are true. I’m blessed with the best friends who helped me through. When I came back from Berlin, they came down to celebrate my cancer with vodka and mimosas. They asked me straight ahead if I was going to die. I told them I didn’t know.’
You didn’t lose any hair during your chemo’s.
Manon: ‘Isn’t that unbelievable? During my treatments, I was very obsessed with hair loss. I used to wake up in the middle of the night with an irresistible urge to pull my hair. I was so afraid of finding hair in my hands. The latest technologies saved it. The doctors used an ice cap, which looks like a bathing cap, to protect my hair. I later learned it was unique the cap worked so well. I’ve always considered myself unlucky, but in retrospect, I was on the right side of the coin most of the time.’
Did you lose trust in your body?
Manon: ‘Never. It’s kick ass that my body endured the onslaught of cancer cells. Knowing that I didn’t take care of my body too well, the last couple of years.’
‘But I’m definitely not that lighthearted anymore. I’ve been close to death. I’m more careful. A few weeks ago, I woke up coughing up blood. I thought: ‘fuck, that’s it. I’ve got lung cancer’, I rushed to the hospital. After a few hours, they found out I had a nose bleed at night and I have a very low head pillow. So while I was fast asleep, I accidently swallowed all the blood, which ended up in my stomach. Gosh, I was scared to death. But hey, this could happen to you too.’
They say cancer causes abnormal food cravings. Did you experience this?
Manon: ‘Haha, hell yes! The food cravings are the strangest: it’s so specific. I would have mango, raspberry and blood orange for breakfast. No, not ordinary oranges, I needed blood oranges. Normally I hate ginger, but I turned into a total ginger addict during my chemos. Also, I would drink ice cold beers (I hate beer) and champagne. Lots of champagne. Fine, crispy clean, good quality champagne that would tickle my tongue while drinking it. My desire for champagne took ridiculous forms. I couldn’t drink prosecco at the time. Too cheap. I needed the real stuff. It cost me a fortune.’
‘Also, I had my weekly traditions. Every Wednesday, on the night before my chemos, I would feel my best and I would celebrate it by drinking a bottle of champagne in my bed. All by myself. After every chemo, I would eat fries with satay sauce. During nightly food cravings, I ate fish fingers. Preferably the cheapest fish fingers around.’
How did people react to your cancer habits?
Manon: ‘The majority of my friends said YAY to champagne. But there were also a lot of people around who said I should take good care of myself and shouldn’t drink alcohol during my treatment.’
What was the hardest part?
Manon: ‘Being sick and having cancer isn’t the hardest part. You work your way from appointment to appointment in the hospital. I find life after cancer somewhat more difficult. People tend to think it’s over when you’re cancer-free. They think you’re back. It’s not like that at all. I need to go to the hospital at least every three months, for a check-up. I’m tired most of the time, and I’m in quite some pain. I struggled getting back to work and returning to an active social life.’
‘What a lot of people don’t know; having cancer is remarkably expensive. My cancer cost me something like 10.000 euro. That’s a lot of cash. Many of my prescripted medicines were guaranteed for reimbursement. Like morphine, for example. Also, I couldn’t work for a full year. I don’t have a partner and cancer also affects my personal finances, I’m not able to get a mortgage in the near-future, and it affects my pension and insurance.’
In The Netherlands, some people say ‘Krijg de kanker’ (get the cancer), used as an insult. Do you find that upsetting?
Manon: ‘I used to. During the start of my treatment, I heard someone swearing with cancer in public. I told him he should shut up because I have cancer and only I had the right to swear with my illness. The poor guy was clearly upset, he had a nervous rash all over his neck.’
‘But self-mockery opens up our arms, so I started to call my illness my ‘kanker-kanker’ (cancer-cancer), or called myself a ‘lekker kankerwijf’ (a good looking cancer chick). Some find it offending. But a good laugh overcomes more difficulties and dissipates more dark clouds than any other one thing.’
How are you doing now?
Manon: ‘I’m good. Cancer was the worst and the best thing that happened to me. Cancer made me re-examine my life choices and motivated me to choose for things that made me real happy. I found out the things that really matter to me. These days, I’m comfortable with myself. I’ve got over that worrisome thing that so many women go through for most of their lives. I got myself a new job and started working as a PR and project manager at The Other Side of The Moon and I enjoy being a freelance lifestyle and travel editor at Your Ambassadrice. It brings me all over the world.’
‘You have one life, live it to the fullest. So I did. I don’t have time to let things drift anymore. I’m a loose canon with bit mouth, purple hair, and tattoos. I’ve got the best jobs in the world. And I have nothing left to lose.’
Talking tattoos, what does your this is not real life – tattoo say about you?
Manon: ‘I’m a big Jay-Z fan, and I had the chance to see Jay-Z and Beyoncé in concert in Paris, a few years ago. The words ‘This is Not Real Life’ were projected onto a colossal white screen during the concert. At the finale, a Blue Ivy video was screened, and the audience was greeted with the message ‘This Is Real Life’. The words struck me. It became a slogan I used a lot.’
‘When I got the diagnosis, my friends immediately texted me ‘this is not real life’ – which was so true. Just a week before I started my chemotherapy, I got the tattoo ‘this is not real life’. The day I learned I was cancer-free, I visited my tattoo artist and ask her to strikethrough the word not. Because this is real life.’
Get yourself checked.
Manon: ‘My motto, my calling. Now it’s my time to spread the word. Get. Yourself. Checked. I never showed up for any cervical screening program. You should. I told my friends I would defriend them if they wouldn’t get themselves checked.’
‘I never thought it could happen to me and it could happen to you too. I don’t want to approach the dramatic aspect, I would rather tell people to be safe than sorry. I have the feeling I need to tell my story. And yes, it’s a personal and fiercely honest story. But I hope I can inspire you to do what I didn’t do and I deeply regret. As soon as you get the chance: get yourself checked.’
Photography: Rik Groenland