Ruby Walvin was just 19 when she was diagnosed with leukaemia. She tells Ayan Omar the story of her hellish treatment period, the subsequent loss of her voice and identity and how she once again found herself amidst the chaos of her life.
21-year-old student Ruby Walvin, like any other, commencing on adulthood felt unbreakable. Starting her first year at Liverpool Institute for Performing Art, she felt that she could leave an indelible mark in her time there. The thought of falling victimhood to an illness never hit Ruby, but unknown to her, cancer was slowly leeching her spirit.
Yet still Ruby believed the signs of her Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) were attributed to her vivacious student life. But in March 2019, news of her diagnosis would snap whatever denial she harboured and force her to reckon with reality.
“As a student you’re tired all the time.” She says, recalling moments where she felt the fatigue and exhaustion was slowly debilitating her.
Her breathing worsened, bruising and rashes covered her body, and she felt constantly lethargic. These were only the tip of the iceberg for the myriad of severe and achingly painful symptoms Ruby would begin to exhibit.
“I remember ringing my parents, telling them that the hospital wanted to keep me in overnight.” She felt detached, nonchalant despite the doctor explaining to her that she was suspected to have blood cancer.
“I was very blasé; it was going straight over my head. I was convinced I’d heard the doctor wrong.”
Ruby’s medically trained parents however, understood the uncomfortable truth that would soon send Ruby spiralling into a new unfamiliar territory of chemotherapy, constant hospital visits, and essentially letting go of the normal things that anchored her to her world.
The Teenage Cancer Trust ward in Leicester became Ruby’s new home. Distanced from everything she once knew: university, friends, her musical career, and the outside world, she began the first blast of intensive treatment.
“ALL progresses very fast, we didn’t have time for anything. I was diagnosed on Tuesday and began chemo on Thursday.”
She would begin a rapid and intense treatment process that left her body feeling foreign and in a nightmarish state between recovery and gravely ill.
“They’re just blasting the hell out of you with chemo and steroids.”
She remembers the dreaded hair loss, the fluctuating weight changes, weakened immune system that left her vulnerable, but what terrified Ruby the most, was the looming possibility that cancer may have stripped her of something else.
Progressing at an alarming rate, the leukaemia left her susceptible to a hoard of other physically encumbering conditions. Her gruelling treatment of steroid medications grinded her bones, weakening them which led to osteoporosis. Shortly after, she was struck by septic arthritis that left her unable to hold her guitar and perform.
The hardest thing to reconcile with, was struggling to get back into singing. As a singer, her voice was her most prized talent, but as her treatment went on, Ruby’s motivation declined as a result of her enervating fatigue. She felt as if she was on the brink of a never-ending chaos. Ruby felt helpless, blow after blow, but she held on, determined.
“At that point, I didn’t even want to try singing. I had everything taken away from me.”
Ruby began singing at a very young age, coming from a family who weren’t musically inclined. Yet, she made a point to be the first. It came to her very naturally, making music, singing and songwriting.
“I started out by writing comedy songs as a kid, I was honestly proud of myself.” It was there that Ruby would begin to mould her talent.
Slowly through her treatment, Ruby unwavering, defied her obstacles and began writing again. It is precisely those lyrics of her painful experience, poured out that let her transcend beyond her bleak condition.
Her new single, The Game encapsulates the emotions she felt, battling only the first year of her leukaemia treatment. What is unique about the song is that it is not just a theme song to her cancer story, but its ambiguity that allows anyone, experiencing any pain or struggle to relate.
“It’s not a song just about cancer, it could be about mental health issues, grief, or a breakup.”
The title of her song, Ruby reveals is a humorous word play on her strive to beat cancer. A metaphor she uses to remind herself that there is yet more to come, and each round she faces, she will stand with a ferocious desire to win.
“It’s a bit like a game, you get past one round and there’s another.”
Ruby is more determined, more resolute than ever to beat her cancer and come out hopefully unscathed. The positive outpour of appraisal and support she has received have acted as reinforcement.
“I know I will get through this.”
There will be scars to bare. But the heroine of this game is not yet done.
You can find The Game on iTunes and Spotify under Ruby Walvin.