Ambassadors for the YACC Shave for the Brave in 2019, Naomi-Lee Cheeke shares her story
Naomi-Lee Cheeke can’t wait to meet more YACCers. The 23-year-old isn’t referring to people who talk incessantly. Rather YACC is an acronym for Young Adult Cancer Canada – a national network of hundreds of young adults who, like Cheeke, are affected by cancer.
A registered massage therapist originally from Marystown, Cheeke lives and works in St. John’s. When she found a lump in her neck about a year ago, she initially thought it was muscle strain from working out at the gym.
Having had a fainting episode, she told doctors about the weakness and the lump.
Both Cheeke and her mother were shocked when a specialist, who was concerned about the swelling in her neck, asked if there was any family history of leukemia or lymphoma.
“We left the hospital pretty upset that day,” Cheeke recalled, during an interview at a local coffee shop.
Cheeke continued to work (while waiting to see another specialist) – an uncertain diagnosis never far from her mind.
“About a week later I was at work feeling like I was being choked. The swelling had enlarged. I was having a great amount of pain.” A CAT scan showed enlarged lymph nodes in her neck and shoulder area. A needle aspiration biopsy came back as suspicious for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“We were still trying to hold on to the hope that it was something else,” she said.
A second biopsy, called an incisional biopsy, confirmed the devastating diagnosis. Cheeke had a type of cancer of the lymphatic system called Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She joined a startling statistic that no young adult wants to be a part of.
According to YACC, an estimated 8,000 Canadians aged 15-39 are diagnosed with cancer each year. Cheeke’s disease was contained to her neck and upper shoulders.
“Given how the lymphatic system works and that (the cancer) could have spread, this was the best case scenario,” the articulate young woman said.
Diagnosed in April 2018, Cheeke began chemotherapy in May. The treatment took a toll on her body. She was hospitalized twice. Before cancer, Cheeke’s thick, long, blonde hair meant a great deal to her. While neither make-up nor manicures were top on her list, making sure her hair looked nice was important.
Knowing what chemo would do to it, she cut her hair to her shoulders before she began her first round of therapy.
“After the second chemo, it just started falling out,” she said. About halfway through her eight rounds of chemotherapy, Cheeke learned her cancer was in remission. That’s when she decided to shave what was left of her hair. “It was just a little covering over the top of my head,” she said.
While the hair she had left was sparse, it meant a lot to Cheeke who often referred to it as her “comfort blanket.”
“I cried. It was hard,” she said of seeing her completely bald head for the first time. Ongoing support along her cancer journey from her boyfriend, family and friends has helped a great deal, she said.
However, she said, being in remission doesn’t mean your health battle is in the past. Cheeke still deals with cancer-related fatigue and isn’t well enough to return to work. “I have to remind myself of what I’ve been through… I’m just taking things day-by-day and trying to get my strength back.”
American poet and motivational speaker the late Matthew Stepanek once said, “Unity is strength. When there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” Cheeke draws strength from other young adults she’s met through her involvement with YACC.
Geoff Eaton established the organization (originally called RealTime Cancer) in 2000 after his first cancer challenge. He continues to be the driving force behind YACC as it supports young adults throughout the country as they live with, through and beyond cancer.
A network of support
Help is offered via online support, retreats, conferences, social events and by supporting research initiatives. “Whenever I feel isolated… I reach out to my close YACC friends, or I’ll post on our (private) Facebook group. We always respond to one another and that helps me feel better,” Cheeke said.
Cheeke is hoping to attend YACC’s survivor conference in Ontario in May. It will be a great opportunity for her to meet more YACCers, she said. Shave for the Brave Ambassador
Cheeke is one of three YACC 2019 Shave for the Brave ambassadors. Dave Steele and Malik Snook are the other two ambassadors. Now in its 14th year, Shave is YACC’s largest annual fundraiser and takes place in schools, offices, arenas, hair salons, among other places, throughout the country.
This year’s community shave takes place at the Avalon Mall in St. John’s on March 30. Shave for the Brave means a great deal to Cheeke.
“Losing my hair was a big part of self discovery for me. I was able to look in the mirror and acknowledge my facial features that I never acknowledged before… I could see my inner strength.”
Cheeke said her involvement with YACC has opened her eyes to just how many other young people face a cancer diagnosis. “I didn’t know any young adults with cancer. But YACC, for me, has taken away the isolation. There were over 800-plus people when I first signed onto the Facebook page. I know that I have something in common with all those people. And that’s really powerful.”
For more information on Shave for the Brave visit www.shaveforthebrave.ca. For more information on YACC visit www.youngadultcancer.ca