In May 2018, Harjeet Kaur came to Edmonton from India with her husband – hoping for a new career, a new life, and to start a family. Things were all right at first. “Everything was going smoothly; I was living my normal life,” Harjeet says. “But life had different plans.”
Harjeet began to have fevers at the end of May 2019. When she fainted in her bathroom one day, her husband found her and took her to their general practitioner. Harjeet was told that it was just a normal viral fever, and took Tylenol to relieve it.
Weeks passed, but the fever persisted – it was around 39 to 40 degrees, even rising to 42. Harjeet visited her GP again, and even the emergency room, but there were no answers.
“I don’t have a count of how many times I went to the emergency room, waited for seven to eight hours, and always [got] the same answer: “It’s just a fever. You don’t have any other symptoms, so just take Tylenol.”
And she did just that. “I was on Tylenol every two hours, back to back.”
Months passed. The fever and chills became so severe that she developed ulcers in her mouth, which kept her from being able to eat. Her husband was worried because he could see her becoming more ill everyday. It was challenging for him to both work and to take care of her. Luckily, her other family members came to help – Harjeet’s mother from India, and her brother from British Columbia.
In June, Harjeet’s specialist called her back for a CT scan, after which she was admitted into the hospital. There, she would be subject to extensive scans, biopsies, x-rays, blood work, and even a laparoscopy. Harjeet underwent numerous biopsies and surgeries and was seen by various specialists and doctors for two and a half months – but still, there were no answers.
“I [felt] like a research patient where every doctor was coming to see me and no one had any answers.”
After three months of being in the hospital, swelling due to IV fluids, along with the continuous fevers, fainting, and ulcers, Harjeet gave up. Unable to find any answers in
Edmonton, Harjeet and her husband contacted doctors in India, who suggested that she come back to India so that they could examine her in person.
At the same time, the doctors at the U of A hospital wanted to do a last biopsy, which would be her 13th or 14th biopsy during those three months. It was a skin biopsy, and Harjeet was promised that it would be the last one.
Exhausted and discouraged, Harjeet was reluctant at first. She had so many scars on her body, and had gone through so many scans and blood work – still, her husband said that she should give it a try, and so she did.
On August 28, 2019, as Harjeet was being discharged from the hospital, she was told her diagnosis – stage 4 lymphoma. Harjeet was shocked by this news. She didn’t know anyone with cancer, nor did she have a family history of cancer.
“It was so difficult to take everything in at that time – when she said the word ‘cancer’… Nobody wants to hear that.”
The doctors were rushing Harjeet into treatment right away, but she and her husband wanted a few hours to discuss it and take some time to process it. For the past several months, they’d had no answers – and now they learned it was cancer.
Harjeet received her first chemotherapy session at the U of A hospital, and the oncologist explained to her the type of cancer that she had, and about the treatment plan. Harjeet had a very rare type of cancer, and they weren’t able to diagnose it until now because the symptoms for it are still insufficient.
After the first two of six chemotherapy sessions, Harjeet was finally discharged from the hospital. Chemotherapy itself wasn’t easy, but she was relieved to be finally home again after three months.
For the remainder of her chemotherapy sessions, Harjeet went to the Cross Cancer Institute. The treatment was somewhat successful, but not completely. They suggested that she do a stem cell transplant, which would allow her to live a little longer; the alternative was to continue with chemotherapy.
It seemed an obvious answer to Harjeet – to do the stem cell transplant.
In December 2019, Harjeet met with her team for the stem cell transplant at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. She would receive chemotherapy every week in January and February of 2020 to put her cancer into partial remission, so that her body would be ready for the transplant.
“Whether I survive or not, I just wanted to pass over this process that was happening.” – Harjeet Kaur on her thoughts in that moment
In January, Harjeet lost her right eye vision due to CMV Retinitis. She feels disappointed that no one took her seriously at that time, even though she tried reaching out to her team and went to the emergency room.
Her fertility was also compromised, and she was told that she was going into early menopause. She wonders that if she had been diagnosed earlier, and had been told about potential complications with her fertility, she may have frozen her eggs.
In April 2020, Harjeet had her stem cell transplant. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, she had to go in by herself.
Being in the hospital by herself, she wondered whether she would leave the surgery alive or not. “I was just fighting for my life,” she says.
Fortunately, the stem cell transplant was successful. Although it wasn’t easy – due to the amount of stress, as well as changes in her appearance – Harjeet Kaur explains that this whole experience has given her a new perspective. She has accepted that this is her new normal, and is trying to live each day.
“I was lucky to get a second chance at life.”
Still now, due to her uncertain symptoms in the past, Harjeet goes in for a PET scan every year.
Now, Harjeet Kaur owns her cancer journey by advocating for a better healthcare system and is passionate about helping educate other cancer patients on how to be empowered through their cancer journeys.
She hopes that future cancer patients will have more autonomy over their treatment journey and believes that the Calgary Cancer Centre has the opportunity to provide this when it opens in 2024.
As her type of cancer was very rare, Harjeet hasn’t yet come across anyone else in Canada with a similar type. Still, she stresses the importance of support groups and communities and advises fellow cancer survivors to build connections with each other.
“Every story is different, every journey is different, [but] if we have that strong willpower to live and survive this, we will do it. I know it’s difficult, but we have to.”
Originally posted on the OWN.CANCER blog.