Natalie beats cancer to graduate

Natalie Jarvis, 27, escaped domestic abuse and has now overcome breast cancer. This week she graduates from Swansea University. In her own words, this is Natalie’s story.

Like every journey, there is always a beginning.

My upbringing was traumatic. I lost my father at the age of eight and my mother had her own demons that she was battling on a regular basis.

I would be the first to admit that I didn’t enjoy school. My behaviour was poor, and I experimented with alcohol and drugs. I was young and naive, and I thought I knew everything. Despite that, I did secure eight GCSEs which would enable me to go to college.

But I was already in a bad place. I was surrounded by the wrong people and found myself living for the weekend.

Sadly, a friend of mine took his own life and that was a trigger for me. It made me sit up and take notice to what was important in life, and I knew at that point that I needed to change, to get out of the lifestyle I was in and to forge a better life for myself.

I took the decision to study an extended diploma in business at college and went on to gain a distinction. That led to an offer from the London Business School, but I won a scholarship to study Business Management at Swansea University. I was over the moon.

But I was also in a relationship at that point with a partner who was abusive.
I started my course at Swansea University in September 2015, but my mental health and personal wellbeing were deteriorating rapidly because of everything going on in my home life. I found it extremely difficult to juggle my studies and this led to me having to repeat my first year.

Soon enough, my world came crashing down.

I suffered traumatic and sustained domestic abuse that I often tried to cover up, but I ended up losing everything.

I carried on with the course, but it was all too much, and I ended up having to completely suspend my studies for a year. I also found out I was 12 weeks pregnant, but I sadly lost my baby.

I felt really depressed and the miscarriage affected me mentally. I moved into a women's refuge for eight months where I was put through post-traumatic stress courses, freedom programmes and self-esteem classes. All of which helped massively.

I took the decision to return to my degree in September 2018 and begin the second year of my course. It was around this time that I met my current partner, Starr.

But in March 2019, just as I was looking to the future, my whole life changed overnight when I felt a lump on my right breast.

Despite an operation in which most of the lump was taken away, I was given the devastating news that the cancer was stage 3, known medically as HERS2 which is the most aggressive form of breast cancer there is. I was one stage away from being terminally ill.

A tornado of thoughts just hit me at that point, and I had all these questions going round in my head. Was I going to die? Was this it?

Gruelling bouts of chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed, but in my head I was stuck on what was best to do. Was university going to be too much to deal with? How was I going to deal with hair loss and my confidence? Would people know I was wearing a wig? Would they laugh at me?

The worries were endless, but I felt quitting was not the right thing to do. I knew I might die before my degree finished but at least I was going to die trying.

The chemotherapy started every three weeks and my hair started falling out very quickly. By my third session it was becoming impossible to hide and I invested in some wigs – many of which were very colourful!

Chemotherapy was unlike anything I have ever gone through. I would cry because I was so weak, but my mind was awake. I was stuck inside a body that seemed to be failing me.

My assignments saved me. I may have been stuck physically but my brain was working just fine. I took my laptop to hospital appointments, a sick bucket at my side and on I went. Nothing was going to stop me from finishing my degree.

The cancer was hormone-based and while I was undergoing the required medication, and following a smear test in February this year, the doctors informed me that cancerous polyps had been found on my ovaries. It was another setback, but again I would not let this beat me. I had come too far.

Thankfully, the polyps were removed and following an extra session of chemo, there was finally some good news. I am now in remission.

For five years, I will have a mammogram annually and a smear twice a year. I will continue to have daily medication for the next 10 years, but for now I have won.

There were times I thought I would never see the end of my degree, as though something was always going to stop me achieving my goal. The elation I felt when I sent in my final piece of work was up there alongside my all-clear from cancer. It was another hurdle that I had overcome.

Against all the odds, I have done it. And this week I graduate with a 2:1. Even just writing those words makes me smile.

I also cannot speak highly enough of the staff at Swansea University. The support I have received has been nothing short of amazing.

When I started chemotherapy, I became very forgetful, and this was something that the doctors advised me about. I was scared about how this might impact on my performance in exams.

I highlighted this to Amy Genders, a student experience officer in the School of Management, who came up with the solution of swapping my exams for alternative assessments where I could complete assignments to be tested instead. There was also a lot of hospital appointments which resulted in missed lectures, and I was struggling to manage my time. Again, Amy relieved this pressure by helping me apply for extenuating circumstances and my deadlines were extended to make it possible to finish my work on time.

Without this support, I would have struggled even more, and my cancer battle would have been ten times harder. The lecturers and wider admin staff within the School of Management have gone above and beyond and I am so grateful for their help and support.

I would also like to pay tribute to my partner Starr, who has been an absolute rock during the past two years. She has been my best friend, nurse, partner, and counsellor all in one. She was my body on the bad days I couldn’t move, and she would be my legs when I couldn’t walk. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for both of us.

I have applied to study a master’s at Swansea because I want to further my education and ensure a bright future. The recent lockdown has been a strange time but also a blessing to spend quality time with loved ones and make memories that will last a lifetime.

I am still on my journey, but a new chapter is just beginning.

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