Travelling home on the last day of radiotherapy

This is the post I feel I need to write . . For some time I have wanted to write about the last year and my experience with cancer in the hope that I can share some positives and perhaps be of help to some. However, when one tries to write about such an incredibly personal and emotive subject it is hard to find the exact words you are seeking and to commit them to paper.

Before I begin, I am hugely aware that even the mention of cancer is totally overwhelming for some and I hope I will be sensitive to this in what I write. Everyone’s experience with cancer is different and unique to their individual circumstances; I wish to be respectful of this.

July 2010, it had taken four months to get to this point.  All the way along the doctors had said they were sure it was just a cyst, highly unlikely to be cancer and I should try not to worry, although they understood everyone does in these circumstances.  “You have grade 1 cancer,” the doctor said. It was not what I was expecting to hear; I was in total shock.  Everything went into slow motion and I could not take in what the doctor said after this.

My sister-in-law had come with me for the biopsy results.  I had felt guilty that she had taken the day off work and travelled a significant distance to be there.  The result was going to be negative and I would feel bad that she had made such an effort to be there.  We would have lunch together and then go home or back to work; life would go on as normal. But the script did not unfold as I had imagined and hoped.  I was hugely grateful that she was there for the results as she could listen and taken in what was being said.  Tears rolled down my cheeks as I tried to take in the enormity of the moment.

Internally I reflected how could it be cancer?  Everyone had been so positive along the way that all would be fine.  However, the results were in and now we had to just get on with it.  For a split second I thought am I going to die?  There was a ‘flight – fight’ moment and then as quickly as the thought of death had entered my head it was replaced with a determination to fight the cancer and be well.

Within minutes I had seen the surgeon and a Macmillan nurse (both of whom could not have been more caring and kind).  It was hard telling close family; but I assured them I would be fine! (Aware I had no way of knowing if this would be the case)  Later that morning (which gave my sister-in-law and me time for bacon butties, at my request, at the café in the park opposite the clinic) a MRI scan was carried out.  The best part of 45 minutes was spent going in and out the machine and I have to say it was not a pleasant experience.  It reminded me of caving; although in this case I knew the chamber could not get flooded with water, nor could the top of the chamber get any closer! The noise from the machine was very significant, deafening, and I was relieved when it was finally over.

I had no appetite for lunch, not surprisingly, and my sister-in-law drove me the two hours back to work as I was in no fit state to drive.  I returned to lead important meetings, this was very tough given the news and events of the day, but they were significant meetings that I felt I could not cancel at the last minute.

Within days the surgery was arranged.  I felt 100% well and it seemed unbelievable that I had cancer.  I wished ‘normal’ could return, but I knew it never could . . .

I did not share my news with many as I did not want people to worry.  I would tell them when I had more news.

The surgeon advised me the cancer had been caught early and was not one of the most common types; I had one with a particularly good prognosis.  The news was very encouraging!

I had an over-night stay in hospital and was delighted to have a room with a great view of the sea, only you could not see it from the bed.  For some reason a nurse had shown me how the bed could go up and down and so I whizzed it right up to the top so I could enjoy the view!  It was glorious to see the sea and this lifted my spirits.

Within five weeks my results were available following surgery.  The news was the best it could be.  All the cancer had been successfully removed and it had not spread.  The Oncologist shared that it was his genuine belief that the cancer would not return, ever!  How amazing was that!  It was wonderful and miraculous news!  It took about three days for this revelation to sink it.  Then the anxiety and stress within me, that I had not been really aware had descended, lifted like fog clearing.  I did not have to worry anymore about how I would be in 6 months, ‘x’ years down the line.

By way of precaution, ‘belt and braces’ as it was termed, I had three weeks of daily visits to the radiology dept, which I affectionately called ‘the zap zone’!  I worked from home during those weeks; the benefits of email and the telephone!  Now, apart from a daily tablet my treatment is over.

It’s a very, very, hard one why some people get cancer and get better and others do not.  It probably sounds odd to you but at this point in some ways I felt a bit of a fraud; I had been diagnosed with the big ‘C’, but now I was ok. I was hugely relieved, but why was I ok and others were not?  My Oncologist said some people think cancer is always bad news, but it can be good news, in that increasingly they are finding ways to successfully treat more and more forms of cancer.  Dr _ said it was important that I helped others to understand this and I have tried to do this in the workplace and with family and friends.  So Dr _ and Mr _ this posting is dedicated to you and your colleagues, with thanks for your medical care and support in the last year and to my amazing family and friends with thanks for your love and support.  I have got a whole lot of living to get on with and I am going to continue to enjoy each and every day!

What I have learnt in the last year:

  • Not to take life for granted and to live it to the full, taking opportunities and having no regrets (we have often heard this, cancer brings it sharply into focus)
  • If you are having investigations and have to go to appointments try to take someone with you if you can.  I went to all my appointments on my own,
    until the biopsy results and I now feel this was not the best thing to do.  I did not want to inconvenience others; however, you are likely to feel quite emotional and is good to have support
  • There are many, many different forms of cancer, comparisons are not always helpful, however well meant
  • Each person copes and tries to come to terms with cancer in different ways and we need to be sensitive to this
  • It is likely that how you and I and those around us respond and cope with cancer will, to a large extent, be shaped by our previous experiences of others we have known with cancer.  My father fought cancer very bravely for a number of years.  He never gave up hope, not even at the end and the way he coped with the pain was quite heroic.  His positive attitude informed how I approached what I faced
  • Some of my friends walked closely with me through ‘the journey’ and some were unable to due to the pain they carry from others they knew who have had cancer.  One needs to be sensitive and understanding of this
  • If you are given the MRI disk to take to the doctor do not be tempted to view the images beforehand (it was too tempting, I did, but I knew somehow it would not be a good idea!), you will not know how to interpret the images and it could cause you to get more worried than you need to
  • Eat really healthy foods during radiotherapy.  I ate all the veggies they
    suggested and free range or organic meat.  I may have  just  been lucky but I think this helped my energy levels to remain relatively unaffected throughout the treatment
  • There is a lot of very helpful information available about your health and every aspect of treatment via e.g.Macmillan, Cancer Research UK etc.  You can view information online or pick up leaflets at the hospital

If you have cancer you just want those around you to treat you normally.  If you know someone with cancer and you are unsure how you can best support them, ask them what they would find helpful, or think how you would like to be supported and let that guide what you do.

I hope you do not have to face cancer personally.  If you do, I hope you too can be well and strong again . . .