It’s a humid mid-July, Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury festival and a nymph-like creature is standing on stage, pouring soulful vocals onto a live jazz track. A constellation of silver glitter is smudged beneath her eyes.
Holly Wellington, who performs under the name Holysseus Fly, is a talented singer, musician and visual artist. She is also a chemotherapy patient and yet managed, albeit miraculously, to escape the sterile confinements of the hospital ward long enough to perform at one of the world’s biggest music festival.
“I am so grateful. I wouldn’t change a thing,” she says to the audience, her voice cracking with emotion. “This is one of the best days for me. To sing at Glastonbury for the first time, especially while undergoing chemo. I am so damn proud to be here.”
No stranger to singing in front of crowds; Holly began making music in her teens and moved to Bristol at 18 to study music. By her early 20’s she was making a name for herself in the cities growing jazz scene. Until a few months ago it seemed apparent she was on the fast track to success. That is until she was confronted with the kind of obstacle most people never dream of facing, especially in their 20’s.
“Two week after my 25th birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Holly reveals, a vulnerable expression dancing across her face. The year leading up to it hadn’t exactly been a walk in the park either. She lost both her aunt and grandmother to cancer within the span of several months.
“I found the lump in my left breast, a couple of weeks after my gran’s funeral,” she says. “I went to the doctor and he told me, ‘don’t worry, you’re so young, I doubt its cancer’”. Having already booked a three-week holiday to Sri Lanka, she flew across the world feeling reassured that everything would be okay.
Sadly, her hope was short-lived.
“Genuinely my first thoughts were, I haven’t even released my first solo album yet, I’m too young to die,” she says. “I really thought it meant death because my aunt and grandmother had just died, you know?” The words gush from her mouth in a river of grief. “I got really angry and I was swearing a lot. And I had to lie down and the nurse brought me some biscuits.”
At this memory she laughs, momentarily transforming from a young adult into a fragile little girl. Yet it is also her capacity to find humour in the face of a life-threatening illness that reveals maturity rare for someone her age.
“I was sad because it’s triple negative, which means it’s not affected by hormones,” she explains. “And it’s grade three, which means it’s fast-growing, but at least that also means its chemo responsive.”
In the beginning, Holly struggled to come to terms with the drastic changes the diagnosis brought to her life. She was forced to cancel her upcoming European tour with the contemporary jazz band, Ishmael Ensemble, to whom she lends her vocals and move back in with her parents.
“I was really down and anxious about everything,” she confesses. “But then about two weeks into starting chemo, I just had this turning point. There was one girl who goten through it at this age who particularly inspired me. Her name is Abi Flynn and she’s also a musician. She was told she had weeks to live. But she said, ‘no, I’m going to be fine’. She believes she healed herself through loving herself. And now she’s like, six months pregnant.” Holly’s eyes light up fervently as she describes her muse.
“She was the only person I’d really seen with an uplifting image of this disease.”
Transforming her negative perception of cancer into a catalyst for growth and positive change has been Holly’s coping method during the most challenging period of her life.
“I was really scared; I thought chemo was going to kill me. But then I had this epiphany and I just prayed. I told myself; I’m not going to be scared of cancer anymore. I have more power than it.”
This newfound confidence gave Holly the courage to share her own story on social media. Now she bedazzles her face in glitter every time she enters the hospital.
As for her dramatically altered appearance, she’s adopted a similar warrior-like mentality, choosing to be bold and fierce in the face of fear.
“Don’t get me wrong, the first time I wore my bald head in public I was really nervous. I was at a gig and I wore a headscarf in, but I really wanted to take it off. I went to the toilet and I was like, ‘come on Holly you can do this’. It was so scary but it felt so good. When I went on stage that night I literally felt as if there was fire coming out of my head. Now, I feel genuinely proud of it,” says the singer.
That isn’t to say she’s felt confident throughout this entire journey. “Most days have been good days, but of course, I’m still quite vulnerable,” she admits.
For the majority of cancer patients, anxiety and depression come hand in hand with facing a life-threatening diagnosis.
“The biggest anxiety has been the treatment, having injections, fainting, panic attacks, etc.,” she says. “But I’ve been seeing a psychologist who has helped me learn some techniques to deal with it.”
One of the most important techniques she’s acquired so far has been learning how to put up boundaries. “It’s been so important for me to protect myself from other people’s negativity around cancer,” she admits candidly. “Especially if people get upset about my situation and want me to comfort them. It’s taken so much emotional work to feel this positive about my situation, I cannot possibly support others who are upset about me. Everyone needs support, but I am not the right person to provide it.”
To cope with her psychological turmoil, Holly has channelled her remaining energy into performing music.
“Right before I was diagnosed I wrote a lot of new music that has been released during treatment,” she says. “I’ve been lucky enough to able to gig this new music while on chemo at the prestigious venue Ronnie Scotts and Glastonbury Festival and perform a live session at BBC’s Maida Vale. This has been the ultimate emotional outlet for me. Standing proud with my bald head and laying out my gifts.”
As for new material based on her cancer journey, she is cutting herself some well-deserved slack. “I will write music from my cancer treatment when I’m ready, but I’m still processing, ”she says.
She has just celebrated her last round of chemotherapy (15 sessions in total!) and will undergo a mastectomy later in the year. As testing and challenging as all of this has been, she is also acutely aware of how this chapter of her life is shaping her into a stronger, more resilient person and gifting her with invaluable life lessons.
“Truth is I’m not afraid of death anymore,” she says confidently. “I don’t feel like this is going to kill me. I feel like I have so much more power than I did before. I am proud of myself. I really enjoy being myself much more than I ever did before.”
Yet, out of everything cancer has brought to her life, it was being told she wouldn’t have time to freeze her eggs before starting chemo because of how fast-growing her cancer was that Holly struggled with the most. Conventional chemotherapy can often result in infertility.
“I’ve been with my boyfriend for like five years now,” she says. “But we weren’t even thinking about that. Then suddenly, it was like, jumping to being 35 and thinking about babies and stuff. And it made me realize how much I do want children.” She pauses for a moment, reflectively. “But you know what, after reading Abi’s story, I feel like I am going to have babies.”
A smile forms on her lips.
“ I am going to give birth. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be fine.”