It was late May 2016 when doctors told Katrina Vockler she wouldn’t live to see Christmas.
Aged 21, the Queensland childcare assistant who looked the very picture of health had just been diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin lymphoma – the most advanced form of blood cancer.
The news came as a shock to family and friends in her hometown on the Sunshine Coast, but none were more surprised than Ms Vockler who had never heard of lymphoma, let alone the devastating toll it would take on her body.
You’d never know to look at her, but the super-fit nature lover who follows a plant-based diet and never uses chemical products on her skin is still battling the insidious disease, four and a half years after her diagnosis.
Now 25, Ms Vockler was on Thursday ecstatic to learn that ’90 percent’ of her cancer has gone, with just a trace remaining in a gland in her stomach – and tells Daily Mail Australia she is ‘so very proud’ of the woman she has become during her brave fight.
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In May 2016, doctors told Katrina Vockler (pictured) she wouldn’t live to see Christmas. Aged 21, she had just been diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin lymphoma – the most advanced form of blood cancer
You’d never know to look at her, but the super-fit nature lover is still battling the disease, four and a half years after her shock diagnosis
It was more than a year before her diagnosis when Ms Vockler developed an ‘excruciating’ pain in her lower back, so intense that she walked slouched forward and took painkillers to help her sleep at night.
But after a series of scans showed nothing untoward, she went on holiday to Central America – where she quickly broke out in an inflamed rash all over her body.
‘I was severely itchy from head to toe, 24/7, it was so distressing,’ Ms Vockler recalled.
Despite allergy tests returning one negative result after the next, she started to experience exhaustion and dizziness, with dark circles appearing beneath her eyes.
But the word ‘lymphoma’ was not yet in her vocabulary.
‘I still honestly would never have guessed it was cancer,’ she said.
It wasn’t until months of physiotherapy failed to alleviate her back pain that Ms Vockler was referred for more detailed scans, which finally revealed the true cause of her symptoms.
In rare cases advanced stages of lymphoma can cause lower back pain, which is believed to result from expanding lymph nodes pressing on nerves.
Ms Vockler’s warning signs were an ‘excruciating’ pain in her lower back, an itchy rash that bothered her ’24/7′, unexplained exhaustion, dizziness and dark circles under her eyes
Symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma
* Painless swelling in the neck, armpit or groin
* Excessive sweating, especially at night
* Unexplained fatigue
* Shortness of breath
* Unexplained cough
* Unexplained weight loss
Advanced stages can cause lower back pain, which is believed to be caused by expanding lymph nodes pressing on nerves.
As lymphoma progresses and cancerous lymphocytes spread beyond the lymphatic system, the body loses its ability to fight infection.
Source: Cancer Council Australia
Doctors broke the devastating news on Friday, April 29, 2016, a day Ms Vockler remembers ‘like it was yesterday’ which still triggers a torrent of overwhelming emotion.
‘It’s something a cancer patient never forgets,’ she said.
Surrounded by her mother and sister, she was told that tumours had spread from her lymph nodes to her neck, chest and spine.
As her mum clutched her head in her hands and her sister ran from the room in tears, Ms Vockler felt her whole body go numb. She was just 21 years old.
‘To hear that news at such a young age is indescribable, everything just comes crashing down on you,’ she said.
In hindsight, Ms Vockler said she wishes someone had pushed for further testing earlier on.
The childcare assistant from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast certainly doesn’t fit the mould of the typical cancer patient
Doctors prescribed a course of AVBD chemotherapy, the first line of treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma, but Ms Vockler had just four rounds before calling it quits in favour of natural alternatives.
These included vitamin infusions, colonics, herbal supplements, juicing, meditation and sessions with a chiropractor, which she credits for ‘helping more than any other treatment’ she has tried.
‘I wanted to try and fuel my body as naturally as I could and let me tell you, [doctors] were not impressed,’ she said.
‘They told me I wouldn’t live to see Christmas. I didn’t listen.’
Despite defying that prognosis, her cancer aggressively progressed.
Ms Vockler says the number of young adults she knows of who are fighting advanced lymphoma is ‘absolutely heartbreaking’, and wishes doctors would push for testing earlier on
By 2018 she had no choice but to start ICE chemotherapy, an potent cocktail of drugs used to treat patients who have not responded to other combinations.
Treatment left Ms Vockler constantly nauseas with a sickness you ‘can’t prepare for’ and stripped her of her long brunette hair, a loss she struggled to accept.
‘It was definitely one of the hardest things to cope with, not being able to recognise myself in the mirror,’ she said.
‘The sickness is not the same feeling as having the flu. It made me feel like I was on my death bed.’
When she went into remission four months later, it appeared that gruelling chemo had been worth the ordeal – but Ms Vockler knew the news was too good to be true when she felt lumps on her neck just three weeks afterwards.
She has been on a course of immunotherapy ever since as doctors battle to control the cancer and stop it from ravaging any more of her body.
Her hair has grown back since she went from ICE chemotherapy to immunotherapy in 2018, but cancer is still growing in Ms Vockler’s lymphatic system
Hodgkin lymphoma explained
Hodgkin lymphoma is a rare form of cancer that starts in a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes.
The disease begins in a lymph node, usually in the neck, then spreads through the lymphatic system from one group of lymph nodes to another.
Hodgkin lymphoma represents just 0.5 percent of all cancers diagnosed in Australia. About 11 percent of all lymphomas are types of Hodgkin lymphoma, while the remainder are non-Hodgkin.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma may arise in lymph nodes anywhere in the body, whereas Hodgkin lymphoma typically begins in the upper body, such as the neck, chest or armpits.
Hodgkin lymphoma is often diagnosed at an early stage and is therefore considered one of the most treatable cancers.
Approximately 600 people in Australia are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma every year, most commonly younger people aged 15 – 29 and older people over the age of 65. It is more common in men than women.
The causes of Hodgkin lymphoma remain largely unclear, but risk factors include family history – with those who have a parent or sibling who has had Hodgkin’s slightly likelier to develop the disease – certain viruses, including glandular fever and HIV, and a generally weakened immune system which can occur because of autoimmune conditions or lengthy periods taking immunosuppressant drugs.
Source: Lymphoma Australia
Katrina Vockler is one of roughly 600 Australians diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma every year.
It is a rare disease that accounts for just 0.5 percent of all cancers diagnosed in Australia, and one most likely to occur in people aged between 15 and 25 or those over 65 years old.
Hodgkin’s is notoriously difficult to diagnose because symptoms are vague and easily confused with those of less sinister illnesses like bacterial or viral infections like pneumonia and glandular fever.
Unlike cervical, breast and colon cancer, there are no screening programmes for Hodgkin’s and it cannot be diagnosed with a generic blood test, leading health organisations to label it a ‘silent killer’.
Ms Vockler feels the Australian government is failing to promote sufficient awareness about youth cancers, particularly lymphoma.
‘Everyone thinks you won’t get cancer unless you’re ”older” but the amount of young adults I’ve seen being diagnosed is absolutely heartbreaking,’ she said.
‘I think something more needs to be done about it.’
Katrina feels the Australian government is failing to promote sufficient awareness about youth cancers, particularly lymphoma, which health organisations have dubbed a ‘silent killer’
Warning signs of Hodgkin’s include night sweats, itchiness and fatigue – all of which Ms Vockler experienced – as well as inflamed rashes, unexplained weight loss and painless lumps in the armpits, groin or neck.
Ms Vockler had no lumps on her neck, armpit or groin, a telltale symptom of Hodgkin’s, and only developed swelling on the side of her neck after she was diagnosed.
In its initial stages, most forms are highly treatable and associated with long-term survival, which means early intervention can be the difference between life and death.
It’s even curable at stage four when tumours have spread to organs outside the lymphatic system, as Ms Vockler’s had.
But as her story proves, fighting this disease in its later stages can rob years from your life.
Eager to help others avoid the ordeal that has consumed almost half of her 20s, Ms Vockler urged people to take ownership of their health and seek second opinions if doctors offer inconclusive answers.
‘You know your body more than anyone and it will literally give off warning signs if something’s not right,’ she said.
‘As soon as you feel that, it’s important to check it out. It may be nothing, but it’s so worth it.’