Holly Wellington, a Bristol-based musician and visual painter, was busy being 25 when she found a lump in her left breast. Two months later, she had the terrifying diagnosis of fast-growing cancer; a life-changing realisation for anyone, but especially someone so young. But Holly decided early on that she would be the master of her disease, not the other way around, and seized the opportunity to re-evaluate her life, re-invent herself, and practice self-love through her art.
Holly, who also goes by Holysseus Fly, has been determined to become a musician since early teenhood. At 18, she moved to Bristol to study music and by 21 she was an integral part of the city’s new jazz scene. Her soulful, emotive voice is what you wish you sound like when you sing in the shower. Now, at 25, she’s applying her on-stage tenacity to rise above a heartbreaking diagnosis of stage two triple negative breast cancer. "As a musician, you are sharing something that means a lot to you and makes you vulnerable, and hopefully someone will connect with it. It’s a very cathartic process,’" she says. "Now I’m doing the same with my cancer."
Even before being given the diagnosis, Holly was going through a distressing time. "My aunt and grandma both died of cancer within six months. Then I found a lump in my boob," she says.
The first thing she did was ask her female housemates their opinion. "I said, girls, have any of you ever had this?" One doctor told Holly they thought it was a just a cyst, but referred her to a breast clinic. By the day of her appointment, Holly was riddled with fear and convinced the lump had grown. At that time, for her, cancer meant death.
Holly decided early on that she would be the master of her disease, not the other way around
Holly explains: "I went back to the breast clinic and my mum came with me. I knew it wasn’t going to be good news when the doctor wasn’t smiling. He said 'I’m sorry to tell a 25-year-old this, but this is breast cancer. It’s fast growing and you need to start chemo ASAP — but the good news is that we’re going to cure you. In a year this will all be over.'"
Holly broke down at the news. "I crumbled. I sobbed, I felt so angry. I thought, I’m too young to die, I haven’t even released my first solo album." She then had to face a reality most people her age can’t even imagine. "That first month was the worst time of my life. I didn’t trust my body. I was scared to go to sleep because I felt I would die any minute. The media says cancer is this awful thing that will kill you, but after an epiphany I decided not to believe this as my truth."
"The day I started chemo, I walked into the hospital with glitter on my face"
Social media — where Holly already has a huge presence through her music and art — has been an integral tool in coping with the diagnosis. "I went on a crazed Instagram hunt to find other girls my age going through it," she says. "I discovered singer Abi Flynn, who had stage four cancer at 26. The night I was diagnosed, I went through her entire feed. She displayed an image to the world that was uplifting rather than miserable."
Drawing strength from this, Holly's attitude began to change, and she decided to use style as a weapon against the disease. "The day I started chemo, I walked into the hospital with glitter on my face. When my mum felt sad, she would put on a ballgown and tiara to wear around the house. Wearing something fabulous makes you feel like a badass. If I have glittery eyes, nothing can hurt me." Now she dances into the clinic as though it were a house party. "It’s like I’m getting ready to go out — I wear my shiniest clothes, I do my makeup. I love the looks I get when I walk into the treatment room."
Holly compares the feeling of chemotherapy to going to a party and drinking too much too quickly. "The pre-meds they give you before the actual chemotherapy make me feel nuts and a bit drunk and for four days afterwards I feel like I have a hangover," she says. And the mental toll is substantial also. "The anxiety from not knowing what’s happening to me has been very difficult ... My life has totally changed. I was super busy. Now I don’t have the energy to bounce back. As a creative person, it made me feel low at first because I was finding it hard to write, and at times I thought what’s the point of going through this if I’m not even making something? The pressure I put on myself was intolerable."
Her hair falling out was hard, but Holly was more bothered by the lack of control that came with it. "It just felt like too much to have my life turned upside down and then to lose my hair. I went to the hairdressers with a combover, the first time I’d seen myself as that sad image of cancer," she says. "Then I shaved it all off."
This transformation was a huge turning point for Holly, who says shaving her head felt like "a release." Plus, "it looked great." She continues: "I was thrilled that my armpit hair stayed with me. I rebelled against being hairless a few years ago and I’m so happy I still have my hairy armpits. This process is teaching me to love myself unconditionally, not because of my hair or that I wrote a new song, but because I’m a living, breathing human being and life is a wonderful gift."
Whatever this experience throws at her, Holly is keen to show people exactly what it's like from the inside: "I document some of the process on Instagram to de-myth the media’s representation of cancer. It’s not as scary as you think."
"I would never have chosen this path, but I wouldn’t change a thing — this is the making of me"
Holly is being supported through her treatment by the Teenage Cancer Trust, the only UK charity providing specialist nursing and emotional support to young people with cancer. Claire Lewis, Holly’s clinical nurse specialist at Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre, spoke about what it's like to deal with the disease at such a young age. "The impact of having cancer at any age can be devastating," she says. "However, for teenagers and young adults who are just starting out in life with a taste of independence, with future possibilities starting to be realised and with an idea of the kind of person they want to become, a cancer diagnosis can be both devastating and disrupting."
Speaking about ways in which young people can cope with the diagnosis, Claire says: "It's really important for the young person to feel they are supported to continue to do things that matter to them, the things that make them who they are, so they don’t feel overwhelmed by cancer and are able to continue to grow and flourish. Holly has been able to do just that and it is a joy to see the determined and resilient young woman emerging from this tough time."
To this end, Holly is still performing on stage during her treatment, recently singing at veteran jazz club Ronnie Scott’s in Soho and the Jazz Cafe in Camden. While Holly performs regularly with two music groups, Ishmael Ensemble, who were recently awarded contemporary album of the month by the Guardian for their new album, and Feelgood Experiment, she is currently most excited by working on her debut solo material. "I feel like a queen when i’m standing on the stage singing," she says. "I’m bloody going through chemo and it lets me feel so powerful and free."
Now halfway through treatment, Holly is aware she has a long way to go. "I’ve got a lot more to deal with than the average 25 year old," she says. "I’m focusing on limiting the power cancer has because I know I have more power over my body than it does. I would never have chosen this path, but I wouldn’t change a thing — this is the making of me. The deepest pain you can feel gives you the capacity to feel the greatest joy."
The following poem was written by Holly at the beginning of her treatment. She wanted to share it here:
I'm not afraid of you anymore.
You may come to me deep in the night
You may show me the faces of those I lost in fright,
But I can see you now in a truthful light,
And I am not afraid.
I'm not afraid of you anymore.
Though you blend my hope with tiny thoughts of death,
When I've been scared of everything from caffeine to crystal meth,
God shone her torch directly into you death where my fear was there crying in a corner.
She stood baring you with a light much deeper than your small crevasse,
Together we were more than your dark mutated mass.
She showed me how small you really are.
So I took a deep breath
and let myself exhale the fear of death.
I shook off my painful strife
and waded naked into her peaceful pool of life.
We sat there together in a blue misty water and we discussed the name to give my future daughter.
See, I am no longer afraid.