Chemotherapy, Cakes and Cancer: a guide for children
Her book about facing life-threatening illness as a teenager is now given to every child who's diagnosed. It's Megan Blunt's tribute to all the friends who didn't make it, she tells Emily Jupp
When Megan Blunt was 14, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, and began writing notes on how to deal with the disease. Now 21, her notes have been made into a book given free to every child diagnosed with cancer.
Although finding out she had cancer was terrifying, her family helped to make the experience easier, she says, by visiting often and helping to make even the darkest moments a bit lighter.
"At Christmas on the ward I had a Father Christmas outfit and my teddy had one, too. My family came to see me on Christmas Day with loads of gifts and they all wanted to talk but I was too sick. Then on Boxing Day I woke up and I could hardly remember anything. It was like getting my presents all over again!"
Another happy memory, which could have easily been a traumatic one, was when Megan's hair started to fall out from the chemotherapy and she decided to shave it off.
"My sisters and I made up a song to the tune of "We're Walking in the Air", but the lyrics were "I'm losing all my hair", she giggles, warmly.
Megan is bright and positive, full of happy stories. Her attitude is all the more impressive because she not only had to deal with a life-threatening illness at a young age, but she also faced the death of her friends on the ward.
"Eight out of 10 children will get better from having cancer, so my ward wasn't representative of that. I was the only one that survived. It made me want to do something to remember them," she says.
The book, Chemotherapy, Cakes and Cancer, was one of many gestures of remembrance for her friends on the ward. Every day, even when Megan was very weak from the chemotherapy, her mother encouraged her to do something to help the other children.
"My mum is a school teacher and she would invent games and tasks for me. She said, 'You are just someone who happens to have cancer but you're still a normal person.' So I was always up and dressed by 9am to go to hospital school no matter how bad I felt. My mum made sure I did something to help someone else on the ward. One day I made a teddy bear's picnic for one of the younger kids."
Megan also started a campaign, called Amy's campaign, in memory of Amy Wallis, a friend on the ward, and it stands for A Meal when You want. She enlisted help from the Teenage Cancer Trust, CLIC Sargent and Tesco, so those on the children's ward at University College London can now have what they want to eat whenever they want. It all comes out of a big vending machine of microwave meals delivered by Tesco.
The book began because she' d noticed parents, patients and nurses on the ward sharing tips about how to deal with cancer.
"My mum was really good at making friends with the other mums and everyone used to talk about how they were feeling but I used to hobble round the ward trying to find her, getting irritated and thinking, 'Doesn't she know I've got cancer?' You do learn a lot on a cancer ward. We would all get together and swap tips.
"I started thinking I should write all these tips down, because there wasn't a simple guidebook to cancer out there. So I started making notes and the notes became a book."
One of Megan's best friends on the ward, Nathaniel, had the same type of cancer as her. She met him one morning when her mother started chatting to his father. He had just arrived on the ward and tried to reassure him about the disease. I showed him my scar and I said "It's going to be OK". But Nathaniel died the next year, in August 2006. Megan asked Nathaniel's father, an artist, to illustrate the book.
"When Nat died, that was the spur to send the book off to get it published. It got rejected five or six times but eventually CLIC Sargent said it would like to publish it. It's lovely because nearly all the illustrations are from that time when we were on the ward – of me and Nat and our friends and nurses."
The book has just been reprinted, with additional notes and advice from a now grown-up Megan, who received a Pride of Britain Award and carried the Olympic torch in recognition of her achievements. She is just finishing her university degree and plans to become a primary school teacher. She seems perpetually surprised by the support she has received for the book.
"I can't believe that something I wrote down would become so big and I had no idea I would get emails from people in their 50s with breast cancer thanking me for writing it. But it just shows that if you have the passion to do something and you believe in it then others will listen to you."
The book has a lot of information about food and even some recipes. This isn't surprising when you consider malnutrition leads to decreased effectiveness of cancer drugs and reports say it is responsible for 20 to 40 per cent of deaths in cancer patients.
"Food becomes huge deal on treatment, because it's the only thing you can control," says Megan, suddenly sounding business-like, then she pauses, allowing herself a few seconds of self-pity. "The hospital would tell me where, when and what I would have to do for tests, I was always having things poked into me... but I was so determined to eat.
"I was one of the few children who actually put on weight because I was so desperate not to have a tube stuck down my stomach. Even when I had mouth ulcers I would still find something that I could eat, like mashed up fish pie, or jam on bread cut into tiny squares that I could swallow whole like a bird."
People always talk about cancer in pugilistic terms, as though it's an enemy you have to face up to. But If Megan used any weapons against her osteocarcinoma, it seems she killed it with kindness. Despite the devastation of seeing her fellow patients and friends die, she managed to create something good from her experience.
"Cancer is the Voldemort word of the 21 century," she says. "If you tell people you have cancer they look terrified. If there's a message that I'd like people to know it's that, yes, cancer can be a life-shattering disease but it doesn't have to be. Treatment is what you make of it. It may sound strange, but I look back on my time on the ward with fond memories, and I remember laughing a lot."
For help and support with childhood and teenage cancer, or to donate, go to clicsargent.org.uk
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