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'You've got to laugh...'
So, this cancer lark is a bit of a thing, isn’t it?
I had been minding my own business for fifty years, doing all the things everyone is supposed to do – marriage, kids, and full-time work (I was a police officer in London for thirty years, but please don’t mention that to anyone…)
I finally retired at the age of forty-nine. Yes, I’m aware that sounds young, but my 30-year contract had ended. One day I noticed some blood in my poo and that I was going to the loo a lot more frequently. I popped along to see my GP, who ruled out piles but suggested an urgent referral to a gastroenterology specialist. When I went for my ‘urgent’ appointment, five months later, the doctor I saw dismissed me, saying ‘It’s probably just IBS,’ and, ‘I suppose I could send you for a colonoscopy, but it’s very invasive you know.’ Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?
Shortly after that, to celebrate my upcoming ‘big’ birthday, me and my husband (‘my husband and I’ always sounds a bit too Royal for me) went away on a cruise. I never once considered I might have cancer. I hadn’t lost any weight, nor experienced any pain.
I thought it was all going to be doom and gloom
I was a brave soldier and went for the colonoscopy appointment on January 2nd, 2019. Almost immediately the doctor performing the procedure announced, ‘That’s what’s causing the bleeding,’ pointing to this bloody gristly thing on the screen. It turned out to be a polyp gone bad. As the rest of the procedure didn’t show anything else, I went to get dressed. A nurse brought me a sarnie and asked if I had come with anyone. When I told her my husband was waiting outside, she went to get him. I felt an impending sense of doom as we followed a nurse in a bright red uniform into a small room where the doctor told me straight away that he believed the tumour was cancerous. Tumour? Cancer? What?
To cut a very long story short, I had surgery on March 18th, 2019, to remove the offending tumour. I called him Trevor. As Trevor was so close to my ovaries, I had them removed as well. I won’t dwell on the instantaneous menopause, as that’s a completely different story. After all this, the histology results came back showing further cancerous tissue, so I was staged at T3 N1 M0, and was referred to the oncology department, where I had chemotherapy for eight months.
To be honest, before my first chemo session, I was super scared. I thought it was all going to be doom and gloom, with people wasting away in the corner or throwing up, but that was so far from the reality. I met some lovely people, and we sat knitting, reading, watching tv, laughing and joking together. My oncology department had the best sarnies, crisps, and cakes too. Don’t get me wrong, chemo was hellish, but it was all made bearable by some fantastic nurses and doctors.
It wasn’t all over yet…
Rolling past a portal vein thrombosis, blood thinners, and two years of surveillance, including regular scans and blood tests, I was asked to come into hospital following a routine CT scan. This was always going to be bad news, as all my previous appointments had been on the phone due to Covid restrictions. My bowel specialist informed me that there were some spots in my liver which would need further investigation. Here we go again, I thought.
Larry and His Liver Spots, the new band who had set up residency, were not welcome to play for very long. After various scans, I had a left lobe liver resection, an embolization in the right lobe, and three months later, a left hepatectomy and removal of my gall bladder. Followed by eight more rounds of chemo. After a little bout of sepsis, I was on the mend and in January 2022 I rang the bell (again) and am now on a regime of six-monthly scans. Fingers crossed it stays this way, but if not I’ll face it head on as always, with the help of my fantastic hospital team.
What I haven’t dealt with very well is the feeling of being out of control. I’m usually the organiser, the manager of everything, so to not be included in any of the planning has been very difficult for me. I tried hypnotism to deal with the fear of recurrence and the ‘scanxiety’ that everyone gets whilst waiting for results. It worked really well for me, so I’d recommend it for anyone who thinks it might help.
Nobody wants to hear me moaning
I still can’t quite get to grips with the friends who ghosted me when I got cancer. I mean, who does that? Apparently they don’t know what to say. Oh well, as my granny used to say, ‘They weren’t very good friends then, were they?’
For me, it’s important to talk about cancer and I’m bewildered that some people don’t even like to mention the word. I’ll happily talk about it to anyone who asks. I like to keep a sense of humour about it and often tell people I must be the only person not to lose weight whilst having cancer, and I’ve had it twice!
I now look in the mirror and see a different body than the one I was used to. I have a ‘boobs to pubes’ scar down the middle of my tummy and also a large ‘L’ shape across the right-hand side. I was super impressed my liver surgeon managed to go over the first scar…so no tramlines! I had a bit of a dilemma last year when we went on holiday, and I deliberated about wearing a bikini as I was wary of people staring, but my super-supportive husband said, ‘Who cares? You’ll never see these people again,’ so on went the bikini. I had a plan that if I caught anyone staring, I would just tell them I’d been mauled by a shark! Well, isn’t that more interesting than boring old cancer?
People also seem to think that when your treatment is finished, and you’ve been given the ‘all-clear’ that you are no longer suffering. Friends tell me how well I look, but it’s amazing what brushing your hair and putting on a bit of lippy can do for your complexion. It’s underneath that counts for me. No-one sees the effort it takes to leave the house with crippling joint pain, relentless fatigue, and chemo brain, but who wants to hear me moaning?
Since my treatment, my life has changed a bit to be honest. I can’t stand up for too long, I get tired at the drop of a hat, and, as fatigue hits, I have to have a catnap to recharge my batteries. However, I also know when I’m doing too much and have to take it easy. I have the luxury of being retired, but spend my time doing art, which I find relaxing and cathartic. I take commissions for pet portraits in coloured pencil, and I love doing them.
I don’t mean to sound glib or make fun of my cancer experience in any way, it’s just the way I deal with things. My glass is always half full and I try to see the best in any situation, so I know that if cancer rears its ugly little head again, I’ll be able to tackle it.
I am Helen, married to the love of my life, Neil, and we live in Norfolk UK. I have grown up twin daughters, and two dogs at home keeping me busy. I am an artist and create bespoke pet portraits. I am an avid ‘hooker’. That’s crochet to you! I can ice skate and tap dance, but not at the same time and I adore chips and ice cream, but again, not at the same time.
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