Leukaemia: I was a 15-year-old fighting for my life
At 26 years old Jess Sampson has achieved her life-long dream of joining the Queensland Police Service, a far cry from the 15-year-old girl who was planning her own funeral.
Jess was halfway through Year 11 and enjoying life as a teenager when she was diagnosed with leukaemia. Ten years later Jess recounts the enormous difficulties she faced, the things she learned and the way her journey has brought her to where she is today.
At only 15, the last thing on my mind was battling a life-threatening illness.
I had a number of symptoms that pointed to leukaemia, but I managed to have an excuse for every one of them. I put my severe bruising down to rugby league, which I played at school. I was tired but I worked a lot and played every sport imaginable.
I’ll never forget when the lovely female doctor at the hospital returned with a grim look on her face to tell me they thought I had leukaemia, and I was to be sent to Brisbane immediately for further testing. The next three weeks went by in a blur.
A bone marrow transplant
One day as I prepared for my fourth cycle of chemotherapy, I yelled: ‘No! That’s it. I’ve had enough, let’s get out of here. I’ll pack the bathroom stuff, you can do my clothes.’ My Mum was sitting next to me. She was frozen and her cheeks covered in tears.
I wondered why she wasn’t supporting my decision to go home and have some quality of life before I died. In that moment I realised I wasn’t just fighting for my life, I was fighting for my family as well.
At the end of my sixth cycle of chemotherapy I was told that I would need a bone marrow transplant.
There was only one person in the world on the bone marrow registry that was my match. He was no longer at his listed address but amazingly they eventually tracked him down.
I had planned my funeral at 15 and thanks to him I had a future to look forward to.
My bone marrow transplant was really tough but what I didn’t realise was life doesn’t go back to normal once treatment finishes.
Everything should have been perfect, but it wasn’t. I learned what to say so people thought I was an amazing, strong person who was coping. But there was a lot of pain behind the smiling face.
Leukaemia’s long term effects
I hated hospitals. I hated tablets. I hated the very things that kept me alive. I loved my doctor who I have a great relationship with. He saved my life, yet I hated seeing him.
He sent me to a psychiatrist. After several years of knowing me he finally caught on to my game – or maybe I let my walls down just a little too far and he peered in over the top.
My friends and family know I’m different. I’m not a normal 26-year-old. I feel much older than others my age. I feel like I missed out on the years of my life that should have defined who I was.
At only 15 I had to make the decision that I would never conceive my own children. Everyone who has had cancer has their own demons and, fortunately, I was able to deal with mine in a way that has allowed me to move forward.
While fatigue is something I have battled with since having leukaemia, I managed to achieve a Diploma of Justice in 2008, and the following year I applied to the Queensland Police Service, something I had always wanted to do although I knew it would be a difficult road.
Queensland Police Service
I had to cancel my first application as I knew I was not strong enough to pass the physical skills test.
I went back to various jobs and little by little felt myself becoming stronger. Unfortunately, two days before the physical skill test for my second application, I broke my ankle playing Vigoro. My bone density is not what it should be for someone my age because of my leukaemia treatment.
The skills test was delayed but, finally, with sheer grit and determination, I managed to achieve the results I needed to pass the physical challenges.
When I found out the Queensland Police Service had accepted me I was over the moon. I moved to the Townsville Academy for six months and was then posted to Cloncurry.
After only ten months in Cloncurry, I moved back to Ipswich to look after my 52-year-old dad who was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a serious bone marrow disorder which can develop into leukaemia.
I hate the thought he might have to go through a bone marrow transplant like I did. He was with me when I was having treatment and I know that makes him not want to even go there. But if I’ve learned anything, it is you just have to take one day at a time.
I can’t deny it has been a difficult and stressful journey, but I am loving the police force and am so grateful that I have finally realised my dream.
But you can’t do it alone. It’s so important to have support from organisations like the Leukaemia Foundation, which exist to support people as they navigate the very difficult road that begins with a blood cancer diagnosis.