Judith Hooks (23) from Richhill in Co. Armagh was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma shortly after moving to Edinburgh to train as an optometrist. In her blog, Judith shares her experience of cancer and how her faith, her family, and support from Cancer Fund for Children helped her cope with the emotional impact of diagnosis and treatment.
Hi, my name’s Judith, I’m 23 years old. In 2019, I graduated in Optometry from Ulster University,
Coleraine. I’m the youngest of three children with two older brothers who are both married giving me two very special sisters-in-law, one of whom I actually set up on a date with my brother with the joint help of her sister! (I just had to get it in there Jenni!)
I followed in my brother’s rather muscly rugby player footsteps by working at an outdoor Christian adventure camp called Rock N Water for three summers, discovering that muscles weren’t essential to be a white-water rafting guide, as I’m testament to this truth!
The Journey of Cancer
These summers spent in California had a huge impact on the person I am today, strengthening my faith and love for God and growing a real taste for adventure. In many ways camp prepared me for the journey of cancer, helping ease the hurdle of losing my hair. At camp, you typically rocked up to make breakfast in the same clothes you fell asleep in, without having had a shower in maybe a week or even having seen yourself in the mirror. It was a liberating experience, to say the least from the image-conscious culture that I’ve grown up in. Most importantly it helped me to rely not on my own strength but instead to lean fully on God.
Along with being active, I can’t deny that I also love a movie night in, especially a wee period drama. At the start of my treatment, my friends (knowing that I’m not a massive reader) put together an audiobook of Pride and Prejudice in which they each read chapters, whilst roping in my past school teachers to read a few chapters too, making for the most entertaining listen on the days when I wasn’t feeling very active. Singing is another thing that I really enjoy- I’ve sung in school choirs which is something that I look back on with really fond memories. I look forward to hopefully joining a choir post lockdown.
Moving to Edinburgh
In September 2019, I moved to Edinburgh to start my pre-registration programme for optometry with Vision Express. I absolutely loved my time there. I worked with a lovely team of people, two of whom were from Northern Ireland. It really was a home away from home.
I got to pick up my hockey stick again which I hadn’t done since I was at school. I got invested in a church community, as well as getting to live with one of my closest friends from school. It was a really sweet time.
Two months after moving over, I began getting what I thought was just indigestion. I had to attend A&E due to the increasing pain and following investigations I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. For me, it came out of the blue as I’m sure it does for most, but my comfort was in knowing that it didn’t come out of the blue for God, it wasn’t a surprise to Him, this was part of His perfect plan for me.
Joy In The Midst Of Difficulty
My Mum flew over the first night I attended A&E. To be honest, I think that even if I had been living on the far side of the planet, she still would have managed to make it there that same night! My Dad and brothers soon followed, and we all camped in my flat. I look back on this time of waiting for results as a special time, one in which I was blessed with real joy in the midst of difficulty- a time when God exchanged my tears for joy and gave me complete peace about what lay ahead.
I had six rounds of R-CHOP chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy to my spleen. I began my treatment in Edinburgh and then moved back home to Northern Ireland at the start of the pandemic for the rest of my treatment. Treatment during COVID brought new challenges but I found it helpful to remember to take it one day at a time. I also found that marking milestones in a special way helped motivate me to aim towards these goals. Viewing chemo for what it is, medicine to help you get better,made going for treatment much easier and helped take away any dread I had.
Each Day Is A Gift
Cancer has given me a fresh and deeper appreciation of how each day is truly a gift to be taken hold of. It
has also given me time to re-evaluate my career path and whether I should go back to optometry or whether I am being redirected into something new.
I feel that my family has been brought closer through my cancer journey, as our bond has been strengthened. My Dad moved out of our house during my treatment when COVID cases were increasing in Northern Ireland. He was still going to work and didn’t want to bring it home. Sacrifices were definitely made by my family for me, for which I am incredibly grateful.
Support from Cancer Fund for Children
Cancer Fund for Children provided me with one-to-one support from Helen, my Cancer Support Specialist, with whom it has been lovely to build a true friendship. It is so important to have people you can share your feelings with so that you don’t bottle things up. Cancer Fund for Children makes a way for this to happen.
They facilitated a very special stay for my mum and me at Daisy Lodge in Newcastle. This was the most relaxing break away from home surroundings in the beautiful Mourne Mountains. The charity has also provided virtual zoom webinars, one of which gave practical advice on how to relax- during which I think Mum was so relaxed she may have fallen asleep!
I had the loveliest experience at Daisy Lodge. My Mum and I both stayed, and we felt like we were in a plush alpine hotel. I was really taken aback to see the fabulous facilities that are provided for people during and post-treatment, catering for families both large and small and running ‘residentials’ for young people and their siblings impacted by cancer.
Our trip was slightly different because of COVID in that we were the only family staying at Daisy Lodge. Although we had the place to ourselves, I can see that in usual circumstances, when there are other families staying at the same time, the interactions and time spent chatting to other people who have also been impacted by cancer in a casual, relaxed environment would be really beneficial. Equally, if you just want peace for yourself there is the space to do that too. The staff in Daisy Lodge tailor the experience to your needs. They are so welcoming and make you feel right at home.
Still In The Moment
My stay at Daisy Lodge came towards the end of a long period of shielding. One of my favourite experiences was simply sitting relaxing by the fire in the evening time reading a Hello magazine! The craft and yoga sessions were also lovely and relaxing. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the Mourne Mountains was so peaceful. Being at Daisy Lodge gave me time to process and just be still in the moment.
I am thankful to be doing well now and I’m building up my energy each day. I find that my body is tired as I go to do things that I did before cancer, but I know that it just takes time for your body to build up. I have recently been able to start exercising again which has been such a joy. It feels so good to get out of breath and have sore muscles. While my fitness is not what it once was, I’m getting fitter each day. My hair is also growing back and getting longer by the day which has given me such pleasure and excitement to see what way it will come back.
A Fresh Appreciation For Life
Undoubtedly cancer has changed me. Although at times it has been a difficult road to walk, God has carried me every step of the way. I feel that it has had a refining impact on my life stripping me back to the things that are important and giving me a fresh appreciation for the blessings that are all around me.
Cancer Fund for Children is crucial. They provide holistic support to families affected by cancer, helping not only the diagnosed person but the family as a whole. I could not be more grateful to Cancer Fund for Children for the help they have given me and my family. I hope that many other families in my situation are able to experience this.
We are so grateful to Judith for sharing her story. Young people with cancer need our support now more than ever. Please, donate what you can today to help us support more young people like Judith.