There is a certain perception of what a cancer survivor looks like, how they should act and what their priorities should be. Michelle Fredman, 26, is not interested in what the world expects of her. She is on her own journey of self-discovery, demanding others to recognise her identity outside of her illness: student, traveller, an aspiring poet and active sportswoman with multiple hobbies.
Stepping into Michelle Fredman’s converted basement-flat in north London was like entering an oasis in the middle of the city. There are mismatched furniture pieces dotted throughout the rooms, eccentric art fills the walls and travel trinkets cover all available surfaces.
Michelle herself flows comfortably from the kitchen to the sofa. Her buzzed haircut and the empty hole from a rebellious teenage nose piercing indicative of her free-spirited personality. Her bronzed skin is a contrast to the gloomy British winter, her tan a product of long days spent at the beach. There is no way to tell that less than three months ago, she laid immobile in a hospital bed or that her lack of hair is a by-product of months of unceasing chemotherapy.
She has just returned from what she calls a “well-deserved holiday” in her home of Cape Town, South Africa. Michelle grew up in London, moving to South Africa at the age of nine. “To go from a little pale English girl to running around the beach, it was an amazing change,” she says, “I grew up right next to the ocean and the mountains.” Her active youth of hiking and surfing the source of her current confident temperament. She ponders on her unconventional upbringing, stating: “I’m very grateful as it definitely shaped who I am.”
A quick scroll through her Instagram and you’re bombarded with European city gateways, jungle expeditions and treks through rainforests and jungles. At the age of 26, Michelle has seen more of the world than many do to in their lives. Upon graduating school at 18 she flew to South America and started backpacking through multiple countries. She lists them with pride, “Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia,” recalling the experience. She claims that her trip installed in her “a curiosity of the world and a desire to tell unconventional stories and write about amazing experiences.”
Motivated, she returned to South Africa and began a ‘Media and Communications and English Literature BA’. Shrugging her shoulders she states unapologetically: “I have always loved words.” She laughs, simply remembering how she was living her best life as a young twenty-two-year-old.
The tone changes as she recalls the end of her second year, her fingers gripping a yellow mug filled with the remnants of her coffee. “I felt not normal- not like myself… I got symptoms like fatigue, a chest infection, night sweats and insomnia.” She was prescribed antibiotics by a doctor who attributed her symptoms to her crazy lifestyle. “I was working as a waitress and studying, living a pretty busy life. She gave me antibiotics for bronchitis but they didn’t work and I instinctively knew something was wrong.”
Upon returning to the hospital, the doctor decided to perform a biopsy on Michelle’s swollen lymph nodes: “Next week they told me it was cancer; Stage 2 Hodgkins Lymphoma.” She recalls the shock of her diagnosis: “I was diagnosed and then three days later I was in the hospital having chemotherapy. That was Christmas eve and it was quite a ‘woah’ moment.” Despite her father having cancer the previous year, the illness still seemed like a foreign concept.
The initial diagnosis was hard to accept but the reality was better than expected. “It’s a quite commonly cured cancer, even though it is rare. It’s one of the better ones in terms of treatment,” she says. Michelle graduated while enduring six-months of chemotherapy believing that she was “all in the clear.”
Afterwards, she felt stifled, she recalls how she desired to get away: “I said I’m going back to South America where I felt my happiest and furthest away from this illness. I lived and worked there for a year-and-a-half. Towards the end, I was teaching in a school and decided I wanted to do my Masters.”
Michelle flew to London in September 2018. “I definitely feel connected to London,” she says, stating how her parents met as students in the same city at an art meet-up. She remembers her excitement at starting the new chapter in her life: “I finally felt healthy again, my hair had grown back. I was in a really good space.”
Despite this, Michelle’s symptoms returned. “I was thinking ‘no, you’re not going to mess up my experience,'” Her relapse was confirmed in October 2018, a month into starting her International Journalism MA at City, University of London. She says that the second diagnosis was harder to accept: “The first time you’re blind-sighted, going back to chemo was like a step back.”
Her newly found freedom turned sour as she restarted her treatment: “I had a good support network in Cape Town. When I moved to London it was a bit tough.” While Michelle’s new friends were understanding, it was confusing for them to navigate. Regardless, she felt accepted as her peers realised the actuality of her illness: “We all have this idea if you’ve never known anyone with cancer. You get this projection through the media which is very negative, that cancer patients are skinny and weak and cannot get out of bed. Yet there I was at university or going to the pub.”
Michelle remembers days where her cancer meant she was unable to leave the house. Studying provided her with a purpose: “I had an identity outside of cancer. I wasn’t just the sick girl. I was the girl in class answering questions.”
Balancing her demanding studies and cancer was tough: “There were moments when I was vomiting from chemo at university or when I had to do a radio package. I was hospitalised during that time and so I interviewed doctors and nurses. I tried to use my scenario to my benefit in some sense.”
Not many can claim to have had the same experiences as Michelle. She remembers the final day of her studies: “I had chemo beforehand and when it finished I still had the drip attached. I was running to the pub thinking ‘what is my life?’ It’s a lot of moments like that.”
Yet Michelle sees the positive in her experience: “I don’t take life as seriously, you’re just very aware of how fragile life is. Especially when you’re lying in a hospital bed for three weeks unable to eat or drink or walk,” she says, looking out the window into her back garden. “Suddenly you realise the privilege you had of being able to go outside and just walk around.”
She says that the toughest part was her bone marrow transplant, claiming her physical body felt more like a vessel. “I had to regenerate everything and five months later I’m standing on stage and speaking in front of people,” she says, thinking of her graduation. Then she adds: “It’s such a beautiful moment of like fuck, you’ve come far, you know?”
Michelle’s education was endlessly impacted by her cancer. Her experience with what she refers to as “chemo-brain” made her “suddenly go from feeling clever to feeling pretty stupid.” It clouded her memories, making it a struggle to concentrate on projects.
Nevertheless, Michelle rose to the challenge, graduating with a Distinction. Still, she’s most excited to be healthy. “It sounds simple, but it is simple,” she exclaims, adding “We overcomplicate things. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but you just want to enjoy life as much as possible.”
She has ambition but isn’t keen on diving into a full-time job anytime soon. If anything, her body is still recovering so she’s taking it slow. “I didn’t get to explore London so I aim to see the city and try new things.” In the future, she wants to tell “beautiful stories”, concentrating on the “positive things which are happening in the world and the lighter side of journalism.”
As a final thought, she adds: “I look at myself now and if there is any message I want to say to people it is to keep going and know that this too shall pass. It can sometimes feel like it’s never going to end but things do pass. Everything is seasonal so just keep going.”