Anika was 33 and seven months pregnant with her second daughter when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Five years on, she describes how her close family, specialist counselling and her faith have given her the strength to face up to her cancer.

“I was an anomaly for this disease which typically affects pensioners, very rarely women of childbearing age. I don’t think my doctors had treated anyone with this disease who was pregnant before.

It was an absolutely devastating diagnosis to receive. The life that I lived ended on that day. I didn’t comprehend the limitations, the trauma, the stress, the anxiety or the loss that would come as a result of the diagnosis. I was fit and healthy, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink alcohol excessively or take drugs. If I could have attributed the disease to something tangible then I think I would have been able to reconcile the diagnosis a bit more, but I couldn’t.

I’d never heard of multiple myeloma. I was assured it is not terminal, but what has been really difficult to come to terms with and live with is the fact that it is an incurable cancer. It can be treated and it can be managed, but to date there is no cure.

My daughters gave me motivation to want to live and to undergo treatment but it came with immense sadness because all along the way I’ve thought I don’t want to die yet, and I don’t want to leave my children at such a young age because they won’t remember me.

My daughter was born prematurely by planned C-section. I spent my maternity leave having chemotherapy and my first stem cell transplant. I’d bring my daughter in with me to the chemotherapy sessions and feed her in the nurses’ room, they all got to know her.

In the last five years I’ve had over 20 rounds of chemotherapy and three stem cell transplants, including a donor transplant from my sister (pictured right with Anika). With every round of chemotherapy and every transplant I’ve had I’ve lost my hair, I’ve lost my confidence, I’ve lost weight and all of those cause a massive crater in my sense of self.

I have heavily relied on the counselling service at King’s College Hospital in London. I met Philip Alexander, a haemato-oncology psychotherapist, when I was in hospital having my first transplant. That was in 2013 and I still engage with Philip today.

When I met Philip I was at my most vulnerable. It is not easy to turn to family and friends because they are so very close to you. I worried about how they were feeling and about them seeing me disintegrate. It is quite difficult for my mum, for example, to see that.

I felt like an egg timer and my time was running out. I learnt it was about being present for today, enjoying what I have.

Philip afforded me the confidence, perspective and the space that has contributed to me being able to make sense of this life that I’ve been given.

Counselling provided me with an additional safety blanket. I have an amazing family, I have wonderful friends and I am a Christian so I connect with my church. All those elements have provided me with different forms of psychological and emotional support.

What I found most beneficial from Philip was that he had a lot of experience of talking to people who had been through a very similar experience as me and I didn’t need to explain the intricacies of the medication or how it made me feel. It is the explanation of everything that becomes a bit wearing.

Every time I went into hospital I was semi-preparing not to come out. I became very organised. All my paperwork was in order, I wrote a will. I was living but preparing for death, but within that I was faithful that I was going to come out the other end.

I’d write letters to my daughters (pictured left with Anika on bonfire night). They were not goodbye letters, but letters which said, ‘we’re in a rush this morning because we’re going to school, but I need to tell you that I love you, don’t forget that’. My daughter still has that letter in her schoolbag.

Through the counselling, Philip coordinated a Mindfulness group, attended by people who had also had transplants, and that really did reframe my thinking and give me a new sense of purpose.

From the point of diagnosis, I had felt like I was an egg timer and my time was running out.  I felt like I needed to teach my children as much as I could about me, their culture, where they come from and who they are. I wanted to teach them small things like how to plait hair and how to cook Jamaican food.

The Mindfulness group showed me it was about being present for today, enjoying what I have, coming to terms with the fact that I can’t change the diagnosis I’ve been given -  it’s here, but what I can do is modify and change the way I approach life. Not minimising the enormity of what I’ve been going through, but it is about finding moments of joy and peace. This allowed me to find a little bit of courage to continue with life.

Without counselling maybe I wouldn't have been able to achieve a sense of perspective over my future. It has given me an alternative way of thinking. It has normalised a process which, for me, was so abnormal.

My partner and I separated last year, which is one of my biggest disappointments. I think that the loss of self, loss of identity, loss of my position in the world and in my household really had a significant impact on that, but I’ll never know if it would have happened anyway. I had to make some stark decisions. I wanted to live, so I had to put all my energy into living.

Without Philip’s counselling it would have taken me longer or maybe I wouldn’t have been able to achieve a sense of perspective over my future because with my cancer diagnosis at one stage it did feel like there wasn’t much to live for. The counselling gave me an alternative way of thinking and in a strange way it normalised the process which, for me, was so abnormal.

I’ve come through the worst of it and now it’s the living part. That’s when you need a lot of support. People think you’re cured, you can get back to normal, but I don’t know what normal is any more.

I’m still in recovery. I’m not going to say everything is better, but I have happy times. I have happy moments more often than not. ”

Leukaemia UK funded the first service of its kind to offer dedicated counsellor and clinical psychologist support for haematological patients at King's College Hospital in London. Through the Leukaemia UK Mind and Body Team, people affected by blood cancer will routinely receive psychological support where needed. It is hoped that by making emotional support an integral part of everyone’s treatment, psychological problems may be identified early or even avoided altogether. Leukaemia UK hopes to fund more services like these across the UK.

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