25-year-old Mellisa Chesterman from Tokoroa was mid-way through her post-graduate diploma in teaching at Waikato University when she noticed she was having difficulty walking up stairs and felt an ever increasing pressure in her chest.
My family thought I was run down from studying, while GPs thought I had some type of viral infection or glandular fever. It felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest and I still couldn’t shake it after three months.
Mellisa saw a different doctor who had a feeling that things weren’t right and was concerned that she had been sick for such a long period of time.
Eventually she was admitted to hospital where her haematologist confirmed she had stage-four non-Hodgkin mediastinal large B-cell lymphoma.
“I didn’t know anything about my condition except that it was cancer. I immediately thought back to all the movies I had seen about cancer,” says Mellisa.
“When the doctor told me the diagnosis all I could think about was how devastated my family were going to be,” says Mellisa.
“There’s just my parents and my brother and I and we are all very close. That was the first time I remember being scared because I was scared for them.”
It was Mellisa’s then 16-year-old brother that inspired her.
“My brother Cody is my best friend and is a real typical Kiwi bloke who never cries. On the day of my diagnosis he broke down in tears. It was that moment that I knew I would fight this disease to be here for him.”
Mellisa was in Waikato hospital for the next few months undergoing six rounds of chemo. Although she says the staff were wonderful, it was still a tough time for everyone. Her first night in the ward was the hardest and she says that was when everything became real.
Mellisa describes her family as being “absolutely incredible” throughout her journey. Her grandma, who they call nanny, even sold her house and moved cities to be a support for Mellisa, while her mum was with her 24-hours a day and never left her side.
“Both my parents have great employers who let them work around me because they knew that our family is everything,” says Mellisa.
During the months that she stayed in Waikato Hospital, Mellisa did not spend one night alone and always had a member of her family staying with her.
As a result of her chemotherapy, Mellisa began losing her hair, something she initially found hard to face.
“My long hair has always been ‘my thing’ and when I knew I would lose it I really freaked out,” says Mellisa.
Her family once again rallied to support her with her nanny vowing to shave her own hair when Mellisa’s fell out.
To ease the process, Mellisa cut her hair into a short pixie cut and she surprised herself by liking the results.
It was very liberating to do something so drastic and I really didn’t expect to love it!
Six months after her diagnosis, Mellisa was given the news that she was in remission.
“When it sunk in that I really was in remission I was just in a state of euphoria!” says Mellisa.
She immediately rang her brother who was at school to tell him the news.
“My brother was just so happy to hear I was going to be ok,” says Mellisa.
“He was so amazing throughout my treatment and didn’t treat me any differently, I was still just his big sister and I am so thankful for that,” she says.
Mellisa says she feels so blessed to be in remission, however, she has a strong respect and appreciation for those still battling cancer.
“Everyone in the M5 ward were so beautiful and I met some amazing people during my time there.”
Along with the support of her family, Mellisa says that the staff at Waikato Hospital were “world-class” and were so sensitive and respectful. Amanda Foster from LBC was also incredibly supportive every step of the way.
Mellisa and her family are now even closer and she says she is so unbelievably thankful for all their support and encouragement.
“When I was in treatment I often felt very alienated, but I knew I always had my family. It was a time where we really learnt to appreciate each other,” says Mellisa.
“I have faith that I now have the chance to live my life as happily as possible which I plan on doing!”