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That blasted 'C' word!

Grandparents and children sharing tips and stories

From Jenny Martin

It’s like a swear word - some people don’t use it, others cringe when it’s said, but there’s no escaping it- unfortunately it crops up too often! I’m writing my story, firstly because the doc said so, but more importantly because I want people to hear things from my point of view. I tell it as it was, with honesty and after sight and hope it may be of some help to anyone else who finds themselves in a similar situation.

At the age of 24, I was diagnosed with having cervical cancer. Not an easy concept to deal with but one which I had prepared myself for, due to several complications during routine treatments, and gut instinct. In my head, the cancer was like a cockroach, buried inside me, eating away at my body, without my say so, something which I found hard to accept. When something like this occurs, it’s not just yourself it affects, it ripples through everyone else. I found it difficult to tell others, because to do this, firstly I had to admit it to myself. It’s a small, but nasty, intense little word and for sometime I wouldn’t use it, I’d call the cancer ‘it’ or ‘affected cells.’ This, in hindsight was obviously an act of denial, but even now, I still find myself doing it. Associated with that word ‘cancer’ I felt was a sense of pity, something I didn’t want or need, so I danced around it.

Telling people was hard; there were people who clearly didn’t know what to say or how to act, people who didn’t fully understand and there were some, who understandably broke down and cried, leaving me to comfort and support them! Of course, all were supportive, concerned and understanding, to which I am grateful. Some were extra supportive, not with grand gestures, but with small things said and done to make things easier for me - all of which will remain with me for sometime. And to one who kept me smiling and laughing throughout - a quality I’ll be eternally grateful for.

During all my appointments, I chose to go on my own. There was an element of protecting others from details they didn’t need to know, but being honest, there was an element of selfishness involved too. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I had to cope with not only my own reactions to the doctors latest, but also the reactions of others. I was told, after discussions regarding having children, and due to my age, that I would need to have a radical trachelectomy. This turned out to be a relatively new procedure which involved removal of the cervix along with other bits and bobs! It is, if effective, a fertility saving treatment for those who are young and wish to have family. Looking back now, I realise I was very closed, naive and minimal in my interest in gaining information about my operation. I know this worried my family, but I was of the opinion that if I didn’t know, I couldn’t worry or think about it. I listened to the part about my stomach not being sliced open - this said to me - great, no scar, can still wear a bikini on the beach - and I switched off- still nodding where I felt the doctor expected me to! Priorities? I know. I realise now, that again this was just another method of denial, and that for others benefit I should have paid attention. Listening Dad - for once I was wrong!

I guess you always wonder how you’d cope in a difficult situation and you never really know the answer until it happens. I felt I coped fairly well. Very well in public, not so well alone. I felt I had to show I was strong, always positive and coping so others would follow suite - an act I performed, and perfected, very well in public. In private, I was not so strong. I felt I was weak and not coping, which my appearance was beginning to show. Being sent home from work because I looked ‘awful’ and had ‘panda eyes’ I found difficult as I knew I could only mask so much. Make up is a wonderful thing, but not flawless!

And to hospital - in on my own having the cancer removed, no one aware of where I was and what was being done. I’m not going to say it was easy or pleasant, it wasn’t! Any morsel of dignity left intact was taken away, between the enema prior to operation, bum on display with those gowns!, and the rest on display for, what seemed like, anyone to view! Not my ideal situation - but one I’ll never forget! Several hours later I began to come round. I have vague memories of the hustle around my bed and of several new attachments to my body I wasn’t used to! The obvious memory is the pain; pounding and constant after the pain relief had kicked in.

Then the physio arrived to make me active! I have never felt so unable or unwilling to move as I did then. But he was quite the little ‘Mr Motivator’ and was certainly not going to let me slack - we went through the pain barrier, and back, several times! In reality he didn’t make me do much at all. We’re talking, walking and bending, but it felt like a marathon! The next day, after a night in the high dependency ward I was allowed to eat. Great, I thought, as anyone who knows me, knows how much I love my food, but, as it happened, my body didn’t agree and decided to let me eat the food and then reject it! So still starving, no visitors, no company my on age, and no sign of getting out!

Well, finally I was discharged - time for my family and friends to discover what I’d been up to - this didn’t go down well! However, after the shock and agro, it was clear everyone was just concerned with my recovery. And to those still questioning and disapproving my decision to go it alone, I did learn some valuable lessons and realise I’d hurt people in ways I’d not considered, but I feel my reasoning for doing it outweighed any doubts I’d had about my decision. I’m sorry for those I hurt in doing so, but it was an unselfish act based on several important factors. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, I gave it lengthy, careful consideration and felt I dealt with it appropriately, given all the circumstances.

Back staying with my parents and now all those visitors missing from my hospital visit appeared. I thank each and every one for their kind words, concerns and warm wishes. Huge thanks must go to mum for making and serving endless cups of tea! And to those I put off at first, I apologise, but looking and feeling as I did, having to smile, entertain and make polite conversation was the last thing I felt like doing! Extreme thanks, to one who continually made the effort to get me out of the house and to keep me occupied, especially as it was a busy and stressful time for them. When I felt like seeing no-one and really low, this person always changed that, without even knowing - so thank you, thank you, thank you.

Two weeks since being discharged and feeling a lot better, although still not looking too hot, and still unable to sit properly! It was time for my follow up doctor’s appointment to check my progress and get my result of the operation. I was nervous, but kept up my positive, upbeat act, using humour to make light of the situation as I went into the surgery. My results were mixed - the operation had removed most of the cancer and was healing up well, however, some of the cockroaches had escaped and I would require further treatment!

I left the surgery unsure of my reaction to this news - I was pleased my op wound was healing well, but downhearted all the cockroaches hadn’t been killed off. As I explained the news to my family they were clearly pleased and began letting others know. I felt a little awkward about this - I was obviously happy to have lifted a huge weight from many people’s shoulders, but I was also aware that I had informed them of my news in an extra positive way, misguiding them, slightly.

So now I face the next stage, which won’t be easy, but manageable with support and probably lots of chocolate! The shrewdest thing about cancer is that it never really goes away. Hence the term ‘remission’ is used rather than ‘cured’ - there’s always a chance that cockroach will come back for another nibble!

In the last six months I think I’ve probably experienced every emotion that exists, several of which I hope never to experience again. However, ironically, I am slightly grateful for the experience. Cancer has opened my eyes to life, made me a stronger person and deepened my understanding of what cancer really is. Everyone had heard of cancer, but unless you know someone who’s been through it, you probably have misconceptions of the reality of it. I had always thought cancer to be an illness where the ‘sufferer’ becomes weak, loses their hair, had chemotherapy or radiotherapy and dies - not helpful to me as I was being diagnosed! These misconceptions may be due to my naivety, but how many ‘survival’ stories of cancer make the headlines compared to battles being lost? I guess survival doesn’t sell papers!

The positive thing about having experienced cancer is that it doesn’t scare me now - I know what it is, and it’s not always as bad as you expect. I’ve been able to focus on the importance of life, what matters and what really doesn’t. I’ve also gained a sense of perspective and gratitude for who and what I have.

Gratitude - a word that doesn’t nearly do justice to what it should express. Cancer has opened my eyes to the many people surrounding me, and to the depth of which people care. The support I received was overwhelming - I can’t even begin to express my appreciation to so many people, it just doesn’t even come close. There were several who stood out, that I won’t name or embarrass, but you know who you are and why I’m extra lucky you’re a part of my life. And to my family - I can’t even begin to thank you for being there every step of the way. For my digs, my entertainment, your caring, your advice (although sometimes rejected!), your continual love, support and understanding - when I know I wasn’t the easiest patient. I could go on, but basically my thanks to you all for just being you - my family.

I was once told that I wear rose tinted glasses and expect perfection - I’m not sure about that but I defiantly now see the glass as half full rather than half empty. Life is for living, and ok - I’m not pretending I’m up at the crack of dawn every day, to make the most of every minute of the day, I’m definitely not!.... but I do now realise how precious life is and why we should live each day as if it’s our last!

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Updated: 28 September 2009