At 25, Alexandria Harbin a seemingly-healthy, talented web designer received news no one deserves — the diagnosis: ovarian cancer. Today, aged 27, she candidly and honestly shares her heartbreaking story with POPSUGAR Australia — from her life-changing diagnosis, emotional stages and physical changes to the many other challenges that have been a part of her journey.
At the time I got sick, I was 25. I had left a pretty stressful job to start at a really good company, and I had just started to get my work-life balance right — I was finding time for the gym, I had a lot of hobbies, and life was going pretty good for me. I originally come from Wollongong, but had been living in Sydney for about two years, I had just moved out of my share house and was living in a one-bedroom with my boyfriend.
"I had just started to get my work-life balance right."
Then I started to get a pain in my hip. I went to physiotherapists, chiropractors and doctors, but nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. It was costing me quite a lot of money and I was in so much pain — I wasn't able to perform at my new job and I wasn't getting any sleep. I lost my appetite, I would have only a few bites, and I started to lose weight really rapidly. I would sneak home from work early so I could sleep. I wasn't functioning, but no one could give me answers.
One day my stomach bloated up, it was rock hard, and I knew it wasn't normal. I went to my GP first, and from there I was sent for tests at an imaging centre. They took me to a back room and told me I had to go to hospital immediately. Once there, they did more scans and then told me they found something on my ovaries. I stayed overnight and after more tests they told me it was ovarian cancer.
After the news, they sent me home for the weekend, as the specialists weren't in until Monday. I think I just sat for those couple of days and tried to process what was happening.
The next week I learned about the chemotherapy I would be having. On the same day I'd noticed my hairdressers were having a sale — a special price for a cut and colour — and since I was transitioning to blonde, I thought it was a great deal and I bought one of the vouchers. As the doctor started explaining the chemo process, I suddenly realised what I had just done. I had to call up the salon and cancel what I had just bought — I hadn't even thought about the fact that I was going to lose my hair.
"I could feel it going, but I didn't tell her."
I started chemo. Every night Mum would brush my hair — I think she knew it was going to go. After my third session I could feel it going, but I didn't tell her. The roots had begun to hurt, but I wanted her to keep brushing it. In the morning, I slept until everyone else had left, and when I got up I could feel my hair coming out in my hands. My neighbour was a hairdresser, so I asked her to come around and shave it all off. Apart from the weight, that was the start of all the physical changes.
I lost more weight, I looked gaunt. I started to lose my eyebrows, then chunks of my eyelashes came out. Then I got quite sick from the chemo. I got anaemia and another infection. So they had to cut my chemo round short, and decided to operate — a full hysterectomy and removal of the tumours. I was told they would remove all of the cancer, after that I would undergo a little more chemo, then basically the whole thing would be over.
But when I came out of the surgery, it became clear it hadn't gone to plan. They were unable to remove all the tumour and I'd have to live with what cancer was left in me.
In hospital I was hooked up to lots of tubes, and when I looked in the mirror I didn't even see myself any more. In the ICU, I was next to women who had just given birth, they were happy and excited to have had a baby . . . and I felt like a ghoul in the dark room next door. I had just had my fertility taken away from me, and next door there were celebrations of life, of womanhood.
Just before my surgery I had gone to a Look Good Feel Better workshop. I already wasn't feeling like myself and I wasn't making any effort with my appearance. I figured I was a write-off. I was gaunt, in a tracksuit, with no hair. I didn't want to go to the workshop on the day, I felt like it wasn't somewhere I should be.
But as soon as I walked in the door it was such a warm environment, everyone was really friendly, and the other guests looked just as awkward as I felt. There were people of all ages — some had brought friends or family — and there was just such a good energy in the room. Everyone learnt a lot that day, especially how to look after our skin, because all our needs had changed so much.
"I looked in the mirror — I looked like my old self again."
I used to have oily, young skin and I had no idea how to look after this new, tight and dry skin I had. The woman running the workshop gave me a wig to put on, and with my makeup, I looked in the mirror — I looked like my old self again. It was a really great moment for me, and something I desperately needed at the time.
When I came home from hospital, after the operation, I had to lie in my room for days on end. I have these full-length mirrors, and I would stare at this creature and think, "What even are you anymore?"
"My family were just so happy to see me smile."
One day, I got sick of feeling sorry for myself, I got out all my makeup from the workshop and started putting it all on — full YouTube makeup tutorial style! I used all the things I had learnt, as though I was going to go out, and I looked really good — I looked like myself again. I sent my friends some silly Snapchats of my makeup efforts and they were so relieved when they saw me. They'd been so worried. My family were just so happy to see me smile and being silly about something for once.
I'm currently on a clinical trial for a cancer drug. I take a tablet every day and it suppresses all the hormones in my body — as they found my tumour is hormone receptive. The only problem with that is I don't get anything to balance them out. Normally people get hormone replacement therapy after a hysterectomy, but every hormone in my body is being supressed. The physical results of that is very dry skin and hot flushes — all things that can be challenging to your femininity. But my friends and family have been such good supports, I wouldn't have been able to do it all without them.
I've had to buy completely new products, but something I really enjoy now is taking care of my skin. Working with what I have and trying to look after it to show the best face I can. I love the Ella Baché face sunscreen, if ever I go out during the day I just put it on and I know I'm protected, because after chemo your skin gets very sensitive to the sun. Another really good product has been an Estee Lauder Foundation for dry skin, which was actually recommended to me on the LGFB day. I definitely recommend anyone undergoing cancer treatment to go to a workshop, even though it's the last thing you feel like doing. It's really worthwhile.
I used to think of life very differently. I had a five-year and 10-year plan, everything was planned! I had all sorts of narratives about how life would go. But now, I live in the now. It sounds cliché, but you have to.
"Everything is as it is right now, and that's been a completely new way to live."
I don't have any guarantees. When I was first diagnosed, I asked, "OK, so will these treatments keep my cancer at bay forever?" and they told me, "There is no forever with your cancer." Everything is as it is right now, and that's been a completely new way to live. You jump at more opportunities as they come up, and you don't get as fixated on what's coming up next, you live more in the moment that you're in.