As you sit down and read this post, I want you to pretend to be Doctor Who and transport yourself back to your own teenage years. Strip away any thought of children, marriage, university, your first job, everything you know now…feel those years falling away. Can you remember how it felt to be 16? To be 15, 14? How did it feel? Those awkward, self-conscious, hilarious, embarrassing, exhilarating years. Remember how you felt in your own skin. Did you go through an ‘ugly duckling’ stage? Did you wear braces, glasses, carry a bit of extra weight? Did you stay up all night talking to your friends? Did you discover eveything new? Drinking, smoking, having sex, relationships, a social life…
Even if you look back and still want to dig yourself a hole for those moments when you felt unbelievably uncomfortable, you probably still think it was an amazing time. Even if you scraped through your GCSEs, experienced your first painful breakup and your first breakouts, you might still look back and smile. For me, my teenage years were entirely self-absorbed. My worries seemed huge. WHY had I left my homework until the last minute, again? Would I be carded if we went to a proper club? Why couldn’t I afford the shoes I wanted? Oh, the delicious vacuity. I look back now and think about how I felt. I thought I knew everything. Some days, I thought I could take on the world. Others, I didn’t think I could get out of bed. I was a raging mess of hormones, laughter and precociousness. Perhaps you were similar.
Are you there? Are you back there, wandering school corridors, frequenting coffee shops, huddling in the only bar known to serve the underage? Ok, good. Now I’d like you to imagine that, in the midst of all of that wonderful turmoil, the most unthinkable thing happens. Perhaps you just have flu that you can’t seem to shake off. Maybe you find something a bit lumpy – but that’s nothing new, because your body seems to change everyday. Possibly that little mark near your elbow seems to have changed a bit. You worry, because you’re a teenager and everything seems like the end of the world. Maybe you tell a parent. They might seem concerned, or maybe they just tell you it’s probably perfectly normal, and not to worry about it. You might go and see your GP. They too might tell you not to worry – after all, they probably have hundreds of teenagers in every week, worrying themselves stupid.
Maybe you lose or gain weight. You just don’t feel quite right. You go back to your GP. They might take a look and refer you onwards. You’re more than worried by now. You get your referral, and you’re thoroughly checked out. And some time on, you get a phone call that you never, ever thought you’d get. You’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. Cancer, that huge, ugly word that automatically inspires fear in all of us. It’s a word that shouldn’t really penetrate the world of a teenager, and yet it is, for six young people every day in the UK. Your world feels like it’s closing in, and your identity is thrown into question – the identity you’ve been striving to understand anyway. And bit by bit, the things that make up who you are slowly get taken away. The more it progresses, the less control you have over your own life. Everything, from the time you get up to the time you go to bed begins to be taken away from you. What you eat, what you drink….maybe even your hair. At a time when a spot on your nose can seem utterly catastrophic, imagine how it would feel to lose your hair. You can imagine the rest.
You might be wondering where I’m going with this. You might well have stopped reading, because it’s just a bit too uncomfortable to read, and you want to look away and not think about it. Well, I just wanted you to think about some of the issues a teenage cancer patient has to go through. Why? Because I want to talk to you about a charity that I am currently working as an ambassador for: the Teenage Cancer Trust. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. I want to explain a little bit about what they do, and why they’re very worthy of your support.
The Teenage Cancer Trust was founded just over 20 years ago by a group of people who found out what a hard battle teenagers with cancer faced. Teenagers used to be either treated with young children or old people, so were effectively alienated from the people on their ward. Anyone who has been in a hospital knows that for the most part, it’s not a good place for a young person to be. When you’re young, your bedroom is your sanctuary. To be taken away from that and plonked on a ward with people more than four times your age is not conducive to recovery. Teenagers tend to need to visit hospital a lot as they can get some of the rarest and most aggressive forms of cancer, due to their developing bodies. The original group raised the money to build the first Teenage Cancer Trust unit at Middlesex Hospital in 1990.
So you see, TCT need to raise funds not just for supporting teenagers and their families, and educating young people on recognising cancer (all things that they do exceptionally well), but they need money to build units for young people. They’re currently finishing work on a ward at the Royal Marsden in Surrey, which has cost £3 million. TCT wards are beautiful and unique, and designed to create a comfortable and enjoyable environment for the young people, which in turn leads to them having more strength to fight back. TCT aim to give teenagers back some of the control they lose in their lives, by making them completely in control of their surroundings. They can control lighting and sounds, have individual computers with constant internet access, TV screens, and ‘common rooms’ that look more like university halls than a hospital.
Everything is designed to make a teenager still feel like they are first and foremost a teenager, and that the cancer is secondary. Games tournaments are held on the Wiis or Playstations fitted on the ward. A special sound proof room is provided, where the young people can plug their iPods in on the outside, and listen to music at top volume without disturbing anyone. This can be cathartic if someone has received some bad news, or just needs some alone time – they can even go there at 3am in the morning if they need to. All staff are specially trained to deal with teenagers, and it shows in the way they interact with the young people. TCT are providing an unbelievable service that is so, so essential to these young people, and can help give them back their quality of life.
TCT units provide a positive and stable environment for teenagers to go to. Units feature ‘schoolrooms’ where teenagers can study, read, and even take their exams if they want. Many former TCT unit patients go on to good jobs, to sixth form college, or to university, and this is in no small part due to the encouragement and positivity that TCT provides. It’s so important for a teenager to feel like a teenager, and this is exactly what the Teenage Cancer Trust give them. In fact, I’m going to stop talking and let the teenagers tell you exactly what they think themselves:
I hope you’ve felt inspired by this blog. There’s so much more I could tell you about this amazing charity, and all the services they provide, but I’ll wait, because I’m already at well over 1200 words.
We’re currently setting up a fundraising outpost in Tunbridge Wells. Although the Royal Marsden is in Surrey, it’s our closest unit. We need people with ideas, with passion, with empathy…and you can give as little or as much time as you’d like. I’ll keep posting about TCT, but please comment on here or find me on twitter @ameliafsimmons for more details. We want to raise as much as we can. TCT is a very small charity who receive no government funding, so fundraising is incredibly important. I’ll keep you posted on upcoming events and ways you can get involved with this truly inspirational charity. Meanwhile, check out http://www.teenagecancertrust.org and ‘Like’ their Facebook page.
Thank you so much for reading.