Hi! I’m Tegan.

I have been a cancer fighter for 22 years. This is my story!

I was 13 years old and in my first year of high school when I became ill. I was tired all the time and could barely pull myself out of bed. My parents thought I was just not adjusting well to the demands of high school. It wasn’t until I suddenly developed double vision that we knew something wasn’t right. I went to the doctor and they ordered blood tests. It was around 9pm that night that my mum received a phone call to rush me to the children’s hospital in Brisbane. I was so scared that I don’t remember the car ride at all. I was frozen with fear over what could be wrong with me. What was so bad that I suddenly had to wake up and go to hospital? What was so bad that it couldn’t wait until the next day? Straight away they sent me for a bone marrow test and the next morning, their suspicions were confirmed. As my mum cried in the corner of the room, the doctor told me that I had leukaemia. Cancer.

But the strangest thing happened to me at that moment. My fear melted away, and was replaced with something else… something I am so grateful for. Strength. My mind was flooded with one thought and one thought only. That I just had to beat it. There was no other option for me. Looking at my mum, and seeing how petrified she was (a feeling I can only now fully comprehend now that I am a mum myself), I just knew I had to hold it together for her, and fight on.

My type of Leukaemia usually only happens in older adults – commonly over the age of 50. And back in 2001, the only common course of treatment was a bone marrow transplant. I didn’t have a related donor, so my doctors had to look to the national bone marrow registry. A match was found. But it came with a risk. A 20% chance that I wouldn’t make it at all… that the treatment for the illness could be what would kill me. Added to that – a lifetime of anti-rejection medication.

The odds were not acceptable for my dad and he set about finding an alternative. And he did. A new medication specifically targeting my type of leukaemia and more importantly, a doctor willing to administer it. I remember I was only a week or two from my scheduled transplant when suddenly, rather, than endure radiation, chemotherapy and 6 months without being able to go outside or even touch my family, I could now fight this disease by taking a simple pill.

And it worked. For 16 years I was on the same medication and although it wasn’t a cure, it allowed me to live. To live a life that I could so easily have lost.

Being a teenager with leukaemia was challenging. I had never been the sort of kid who just lived in the present, making friends and having fun. My future was planned out in my mind for as long as I could remember. I loved school. I loved learning. I loved achieving. There was never a doubt that I would graduate, go to university and work as hard as I could to do something amazing with my life.

But as grateful as I was to be alive, I was angry that leukaemia took that away from me. My medication kept me alive, but it prevented me from living a normal life. I was so tired all the time, and I just couldn’t keep up anymore. A once straight A student, my grades started to slip and eventually in the first couple of weeks of grade 11, I decided to end my dreams and leave school. I missed my formal, I missed graduating, I missed everything that mattered most to me in the world.

And I was heartbroken for a very long time.

I got into the workforce and tried my hand at a few different things, yet I was always held back by my illness. No matter my passion for whatever I was doing, holding down a job was next to impossible because there was no flexibility when working for someone else.

Eventually I found my calling. I had always enjoyed creative pursuits, so when a friend needed help with some computer graphics and a website for their business, I thought I would give it a go. And I loved it. Finally, there was a glimmer of the passion I once had and excitement about the future.

Around this time, I also met my future husband and began to build a normal life. I studied web and graphic design and built my own design business – and I haven’t looked back. In 2012 I was absolutely blessed with my son, Joey. Pregnancy was hard, and a bit scary as I had to come off my medication for the entire duration for the safety of the baby. I was lucky that my doctor was very supportive, and my leukaemia counts remained fairly stable.

I settled into a normal life and worked in my business that allowed me the flexibility I needed. However last year, my medication stopped working and I suddenly felt that fear again – the uncertainty of the future and the realisation that this would be my life forever. I was put on new medication, however it was a shock to my body and I endured crippling fatigue and bone pain. Over time, the side effects subsided to be much less intense and I settled back into a new rhythm, but at a slower pace. Going through it all again, and being forced to feel that fear again that I hadn’t really experienced since I was a child, changed something inside of me. I was no longer content in my “normal” life. I wanted more – I wanted to DO more.

One day I decided to design a simple bracelet – a representation of my journey and something that I could wear to remind me of what I have been through. For those days when I am hard on myself and wish that I was more than what I am. That one bracelet turned into another product design, and another, and another. Until suddenly I had several product ideas in mind to honour those battling, those who have passed, and to raise awareness of something that truly touches us all – cancer.

But as with all endeavours, they evolve and grow. From my ideas came my true purpose.

I reflected upon my own time as a child with cancer and how it made me feel. The one feeling that sprung to mind the most was loneliness. Not in the way that means I had no one around me, I did. I had my wonderful family supporting me every step of the way. But I was lonely in the sense that no one around me truly knew what if felt like. The feeling of having an illness inside me that could take my life away. The feeling of my childhood being taken from me in an instant, because suddenly play time was over and adulthood was there, forcing me to grow up and be the mature person I needed to be to deal with my new life.

I have now lived with leukaemia for over half my life and I will likely have it forever. That realisation hurt for a long time, until I decided to pull myself up, be grateful that I am here, and focus all my energy into creating happiness. Not just for me,
but for others also.

I wanted to create something to counteract that feeling of loneliness, so I designed the “Bravery Buddies”. The Bravery Buddies are a collection of dolls for children who are either battling cancer or who have a loved one with cancer.

These dolls may just be dolls, but they are special. They send the message to a child that “you are not alone”. They are inclusive dolls for both boys and girls of different ethnicities and colours representing a range of cancers. I want to ensure that no child feels left out. In short, I created these dolls to try and lessen the pain that I myself felt, and that I never want other children in the same situation to feel. I created them to bring even just a glimmer of joy to their lives.

The Bravery Buddies have no hair, just like a lot of children who are battling cancer. The aim is for the dolls’ physical appearance to help sick kids feel like they’ve got an empathetic friend on their side. To be able to look at their special friend and think, “Hey, you’re just like me.” Children are able to form a bond with their dolls, to share the experience of cancer – to be a friend to them when they need one most.

The early stages of design and production were funded straight out of our savings, but I knew that it would be worthwhile. I almost got to the point of having 100 dolls ready to donate by last Christmas, however was very disappointed that quality issues with manufacture meant I had to start again. I had no money of my own left to back it, but I still had so much determination. I created a Kickstarter campaign to help see the project through its first phase and get dolls into the loving arms of children in hospital at Christmas. A 30-day campaign (all or nothing!) went by very fast and on day 29 I was nowhere near my goal. However as if by miracle, in the final 20 hours, word of my mission got out and with the help of amazing backers, the project was funded and I set about getting the dolls finished and ready for distribution.

On Christmas eve, my husband, son and I took a load of dolls to the Lady Cilento hospital in Brisbane and handed them out. I could tell it meant so much, not only to the children but to the parents as well. It may be a small thing but I know from personal experience that even small kindnesses in a time of trauma mean so much. I can honestly say that it was the most rewarding experience of my life and I had an overwhelming feeling that I had finally found it…. My purpose, my passion. And I just know I have to keep going.

To anyone battling cancer or to the parents of children who are battling, know this: You are NOT ALONE. Cancer has this way of making you feel like you are the only person in the world, battling something that is very personal. But sadly, you only have to look at the statistics to see that is just not true. It touches all of our lives either directly or through a loved one. So my message is to get out there and find your support network… because I guarantee you will not have to look far to find other people who feel just like you do. The comfort that can come from hearing those words “I understand, and feel that way too” can be immense. Another thing I feel is important to remember that you don’t have to be strong ALL the time. It’s ok to scream out to the world that Cancer sucks! And life’s not fair. It’s ok to break down and cry and let yourself process the pain… as long as you always pick yourself up again, know that you aren’t alone and that Cancer is “just a word… not a sentence”.