"At 23 years old your health isn’t your number one concern."
We all know Demi from her stint in the Love Island Villa back in January 2020 but in March of this year Demi was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She decided to use her platform to share her story and raise awareness of the importance of knowing your body and pushing for treatment. We caught up with her as part of our Stand Up To Cancer campaign and she told us her story...
Hi Demi! Thanks so much for being part of our campaign today. From what I understand you’re still in treatment. How are you feeling?
At the moment I am still in treatment but it’s going really well and I’m hoping that by the time Christmas comes along I’ll have my full body CT scan and I’ll be (hopefully) cancer-free! Thyroid cancer is thankfully very treatable and luckily I’ve caught it so early, so yeh I’m doing really well thank you!
Before we start, we’re going to get to know you a little better. How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
It would have to be bubbly, caring and positive. As generic as that sounds I think that definitely describes me! I’m a very bubbly person. Everyone always says to me “you smile so much” and yeh that’s just me!
What’s your biggest dream?
Oooo! This may sound really cheesy is just to be happy. That sounds so cringe but i feel like whatever happens in life, whatever career i go down the most important thing is happiness. I want to be a career-driven, independent gal doing what I gotta do. So, regardless of what I’ve been through I hope I can continue and be super positive, have a sick career, a family and just be happy.
Number 1 female icon?
My number 1 female icon is Nicki Minaj and I don’t care what people think about that! She is such a boss b that I am happy to embrace it. I feel like she’s so independent, she makes me feel so good about myself and she’s super confident that’s why she’s my female icon...apart from my mum...obviously!
Can you tell us a little bit about your diagnosis?
So, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in March this year. I actually found the lump back in 2019 when I was at university. It was quite a prominent lump that sat on my neck - I’d say it was about the size of a golf ball. I was studying at university, I was too busy doing exams and worrying about boys and partying that I just neglected it. Once I graduated I told my mum and she went into full panic mode and told me “you need to get this checked” as we do have a history of cancer in our family. I went to get it checked by the doctor, had a scan and they said that it was all fine. He told me my bloods had come back fine, the scan looks ok and they thought it was a thyroid nodule which is really common in women, so I just left it. I didn’t think anything of it. I remember when I came off the show and you get your phone back, I was just inundated with thousands of messages and notifications and I remember I was reading through my requests on social media and quite a few people had messaged me and said “Hi Demi! I’ve seen this lump on your throat, I think you should go get it checked.” So I thought ok other people are noticing it now, maybe it’s getting bigger. But then obviously you come out the show and your whole life changes, it’s all a bit mad and again it was just in the back of my mind and at 23 years old your health isn’t your number one concern. I left it and left it and then went to get another appointment in September 2020 but because of the pandemic they kept cancelling and they rearranged and cancelled six times in a row! I was finally seen in March this year. They did another scan. Blood tests fine, scan fine but I pushed them and said that I thought there was something wrong, that I thought it was getting bigger and could they do some more checks. They agreed to drain the fluid and within 2 weeks they said that they thought it might be cancer and I was in surgery. I had half a thyroidectomy and then another 2 weeks later I got my results and unfortunately they told me it was thyroid cancer and it was tumor the size of a golf ball that had been sat inside my neck all this time. Since then I’ve had the full surgery - the thyroid is completely gone and the tumour is out! I’ve since had some further radioiodine treatment to just zap away any more bad cells and now I’ve just got to wait and see if I’m cancer free!
Did you feel confident to push back on your doctors and insist on further scans and tests?
I felt really confident in pressing my doctors for more because my stepdad was actually diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma cancer just before me and his was again because he wasn’t referred to a specialist quickly enough. They kept shrugging him off. He had to go back several times over 2 years and by the time it did get found it was too late. That’s when I knew if something doesn’t feel right in your body always ask for a second opinion, always ask to be sent to a specialist and never feel like you’re wasting time because your health is your wealth.
So, you’re in the public eye - how did it feel to go through something so personal in such a public way?
It was really difficult having to go through something so personal in the public eye, have all these followers on Instagram and the news documenting your life. It felt really weird because I’d walk down the street and people would come up to me and ask me about my cancer and it just reminded me that I have it! I’m so cold to it - that’s my defense mechanism I’m just really distanced from it that when people come up and they’re always asking me about my cancer and stuff, it reminds me that I actually have it. So it has been hard talking about it so publicly, amazing as it is it’s been difficult because it’s a constant reminder. I get messages every single day from people asking for advice, asking if I think this is cancer and I obviously can’t reply to everyone so sometimes it’s really overwhelming. But it’s done some good and that’s the most important thing.
Did you feel like you had to talk about your diagnosis? Did you feel like you had to share your journey? Was that a choice you made and if so were you happy with that choice?
It was definitely a choice made by me to talk out about my diagnosis on social media but I felt like I had to make that choice for my mental health. I’ve got 1 million people looking at my social media everyday and if I was going to fake it, be happy all the time and pretend I’m well that would make me feel so depressed. For me it was important to come out on social media and just be honest and it’s helped me because I’ve had so much amazing support and I can be true to myself. Like if I’m having a down day I can just come off social media for a while and I don’t have to feel guilty about that. I don’t feel under pressure to keep up with all these other influencers and all these other Islanders. I can think no I’ve got a lot going on, I can speak openly about it, I’m saving other people’s lives, so for me I felt like I had to speak out about it.
How does that feel because I did read that once you spoke out about it lots of women went to go and get themselves checked and actually DM’d you! That must have been a crazy feeling!
It has been the best feeling the world. The response I’ve got since speaking out about my cancer - I’ve had hundreds of young women reach out to me. I get messaged every single day! They’ll send me a picture of themselves in hospital after having surgery saying ‘Thank you Demi - I wouldn’t have had this surgery if it wasn’t for you’ and that blows my mind every single day. I also read somewhere that since I spoke out about my cancer diagnosis google searches for thyroid cancer have gone up by 90% this year which is just incredible. To have that much of an impact has been brilliant. Like my mum always says that out of all of this you’ve probably saved at least one life if not loads more so as much as it’s horrendous what i’m going through I’m saving people - so yeh I’m glad!
How do you stay so positive? You are so smiley, so bubbly where do you get your strength from? What little things do you do when you’re having a bad day to lift you up?
It’s definitely hard being super positive all the time. I think it comes naturally to me because i’m just such a positive person. At home i’m dealing with two opposite ends of the spectrum, i’m dealing with me who is dealing with a very treatable cancer and then my stepdad who is terminally ill. So i feel like for me what i’m going through is a blessing compared to other people because I know that my stepdad would dream to be in my shoes. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have cancer and they’ve said that positivity it such an amazing medicine as cringe as that sounds. They feel like that positivity has actually prolonged their life and i think if you’re negative about it you could just spiral. I do have my down days even though on social media I am quite positive and really happy. When I have those down days my friends will come over, they always bring me hampers full of chocolate, hot chocolate and magic stars (they’re my favourite) and they come round and we eat! Even working with Stand Up To Cancer it’s been like counselling for me because sometimes I feel like some of my friends find it a very taboo subject especially for my age I’m 23, how do you talk to your best mate who’s in their twenties about their cancer. It’s not something you expect to go through. So, talking about this and working with Stand Up To Cancer has just been amazing because it’ makes it more relatable when you realise you’re not going through it alone.
So as you’ve said you are so young, what do you think are people’s biggest misconceptions about cancer?
I think people’s biggest misconception about cancer is that it’s a death sentence. I’ve always treated it like that. I think cancer and I think old people. That’s just how I’ve always thought of it. I always used to see young people on TV with cancer and you never think it’s going to be you. It’s such a shock to the system. Even now i was diagnosed 6 months ago now and I'm still in denial! Sometimes I forget that I have it. I remember when I’d been diagnosed with cancer and I sat back in the waiting room and I was sat with all these older people. I remember sitting there thinking how? Why me?! I’ve just come off this amazing TV show and Ive got this incredible career ahead of me - why does this have to happen to me now? But i’m so grateful i found it because it’s going to save my life. I hope to be a role model to young people and encourage them to pause Netflix for 5 minutes and check themselves, just have a little feel!
Do you live differently now and if so how? Do you have a different perspective on life?
I definitely have a different perspective on life since I had my cancer diagnosis. Even though i’m very fortunate to have a treatable cancer. For me the trivial things that used to happen in my life that I used to think that were really important that used to play on mind like boy trouble or stress at university to me that’s so trivial now. I feel awful because sometimes my friends chat to me about problems in their lives that are silly little things and i’m so numb to it. But it has made me more appreciative of life and I just feel like the little things don’t matter. Don’t stress yourself. There is so much more to life!
What do you think as a society, as a brand, as individuals as communities we could do better?
Talk about it more. Don’t be afraid to chat to people about it if they people do have cancer. Sometimes my friends feel a bit awkward bringing it up to me and instead of just saying Demi how you feeling today? How’s your cancer? They’ll just bring me chocolate or food which is more their appreciation to me. I’d rather we sat down and had a grown up serious conversation about it. I feel like young people need to not be afraid to discuss it. The number one thing I get in my messages is Demi I’ve found something but i’m scared to go to the doctors - they’re so young and they’re scared of the diagnosis, they’re scared of what it could be but it could save your life so you’ve just got to go!
You’ve already done so much for your community by documenting your experience on social but is there anything else you’d want to do?
I’d actually love to do a documentary and work with young people because I just don’t see it enough. I see all these awful tragic stories from charities but I don’t actually see a lot of chatting to young people in general. For me I sometimes feel a bit isolated because i’m dealing with living my life in the public eye and at the same time i’m a young girl with cancer. I remember being in hospital and the worst thing for me was I had to come off social media because I couldn’t bare to see people’s stories and see people’s posts out partying and having fun. But obviously there was nothing I could do. So I think people just need to talk about those things more.
Why do you think campaigns like Stand Up To Cancer are so important?
They are vital for raising awareness, people who are watching the show might think ‘oo that lump has changed or that mole looks different’ it will save their life. For me it’s so relatable as someone going through cancer watching the show it brings some comfort and brings understanding and makes them feel like they’re not alone.
Who are you standing up for today?
Today I’m standing up for me, my stepdad Adrian and all the other young girls affected by cancer. I hope I can be a role model to you and let’s raise some awareness!
1 in 2 of us will get cancer in our lifetime* but we can all support research to beat it, so get comfy, order a takeaway, get the donations page up at the ready and make sure you tune in to Channel 4 on Friday 15th October at 7:30pm for a night of incredible television.
Together we Stand Up To Cancer and help save lives.
*Ahmad AS et al, British Journal of Cancer, 2015