The Big C: three sto­ries of sur­vival

A di­ag­no­sis of can­cer is one of the great­est fears for most of us. How­ever, it need not be the death sen­tence it once was, and hear­ing from sur­vivors can bring real hope. Here, three brave women re­lay their ex­pe­ri­ences

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS FOCUS - By He­len McAr­dle Health Correspondent • He­len McAr­dle won the Sci­ence and Health cat­e­gory in the 2018 Bri­tish Jour­nal­ism Awards.

FOR months Liz Clark had been un­able to shake off a per­sis­tent cough. An­tibi­otics had failed and on one oc­ca­sion it was so vi­o­lent that the univer­sity lec­turer cracked a rib.

But with no other symp­toms caus­ing her alarm, the other­wise healthy 57-yearold ex­pected noth­ing more se­ri­ous than pneu­mo­nia when her GP sent her for an X-ray in sum­mer 2013.

Lung can­cer wasn’t even on the radar. “I went fully ex­pect­ing that the worst it would be would be pneu­mo­nia,” she said. “And then I think it was 10 days later that I was phoned by the GP to come in and get the re­sults. I didn’t ex­pect the dev­as­tat­ing news that I got – I went on my own, my hus­band wasn’t here. I never in a mil­lion years ex­pected that it would be a tu­mour.”

Now 62, Liz is among those shar­ing her story as part of the Scot­tish Govern­ment’s new early de­tec­tion cam­paign, My Sur­vivor, which highlights both the pa­tients’ ex­pe­ri­ence of over­com­ing the dis­ease and what their sur­vival means to those clos­est to them.

Liz, who lives in Aberdeen with her hus­band Iain, a re­tired banker, said she felt “in com­plete de­nial” at first. She had none of the usual symp­toms such as cough­ing up blood or weight loss, but a se­ries of gru­elling biop­sies con­firmed it was lung can­cer and in Au­gust 2013 she was ad­mit­ted to Aberdeen Royal In­fir­mary where sur­geons planned to re­move the base of her right lung.

Un­for­tu­nately, the tu­mour proved more com­plex than ex­pected and medics were forced to re­move her whole lung .

She said: “I went into surgery on the Wed­nes­day evening and the next thing I re­mem­ber is wak­ing up on the Satur­day. When the sur­geon told me they’d taken away the whole lung I was in to­tal shock.”

Re­mov­ing the whole lung meant Liz avoided chemo­ther­apy since there was no sign that the can­cer had spread else­where. But it also meant cut­ting short her ca­reer and tak­ing early re­tire­ment in 2014 from Aberdeen Univer­sity, where she had taught in the ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment for 25 years.

“I was a pro­fes­sional com­mu­ni­ca­tor and ac­tu­ally it’s a heck of a lot harder to com­mu­ni­cate when you’ve only got one lung,” she said. “I had no idea your res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem was so in­volved in day-to-day speak­ing. When you’re talk­ing, you’re us­ing a lot of your lung ca­pac­ity and I have to keep tak­ing deep breathes just to keep go­ing.

“It be­came ob­vi­ous that I couldn’t do my job and that was ob­vi­ously a big thing to get over. But I’m still alive and, in a way, it’s a small price to pay.”

Her hus­band says he was im­pressed by his wife’s re­silience. Doc­tors ex­pected to keep her in hos­pi­tal for 10 days af­ter surgery, but just five days later she was well enough to go home. “Her abil­ity to deal with the phys­i­cal trauma and the sub­se­quent dis­com­fort and pain of the early stages of re­cov­ery was amaz­ing re­ally,” he said. “That was a rev­e­la­tion be­cause I hadn’t seen that be­fore.”

The cou­ple, who met at univer­sity and have been mar­ried for 41 years, have two grown-up sons and four grand­chil­dren. Five years on, Iain Clark says the ex­pe­ri­ence has changed their ap­proach to life for the bet­ter, in­clud­ing tak­ing time for ex­tended trips to New Zealand where one of their sons lives with his fam­ily.

He added: “When Liz went to the Mag­gie’s Cen­tre, she found the phrase they use – ‘yes­ter­day’s his­tory, to­mor­row’s a mys­tery, to­day is a gift’ – re­ally help­ful. You can’t do any­thing about the past, you can worry too much about the fu­ture and you don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen, so you’ve got to­day – make the most of it.

“That had a huge im­pact on her men­tal health and be­ing able to come to terms with things. And, in fact, she lives her life with that adage still, five years af­ter she had the op­er­a­tion, and it’s rubbed off on me.

“Whether you’ve got a con­di­tion or not, whether you’re to­tally healthy at the mo­ment or fac­ing death, there is ac­tu­ally a lot to be said for it. We both tend to adopt that ap­proach, so in some re­spects you learn from a very try­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“In­stead of think­ing ‘maybe I’ll do that next year’, you don’t put things off. You do them – be­cause you looked in the face of not be­ing able to do them. You don’t put off un­til to­mor­row what you can do to­day.”

Fear of a can­cer di­ag­no­sis is one of the is­sues that leads peo­ple to de­lay speak­ing to their doc­tor about symp­toms. How­ever, the De­tect Can­cer Early Sur­vivors cam­paign is try­ing to drive home the mes­sage that sur­vival rates have im­proved dra­mat­i­cally over the past 30 years, and early di­ag­no­sis is a key part.

For Ali­son Daly, a psy­chi­atric nurse from Cly­de­bank, the im­por­tance of early de­tec­tion was brought home when her breast can­cer de­vel­oped from stage one

In­stead of think­ing ‘maybe I’ll do that next year’, you don’t put things off. You do them – be­cause you looked in the face of not be­ing able to do them

to stage two in just two months while she waited for surgery.

The mar­ried mother-of-two was di­ag­nosed with a tu­mour in Au­gust 2015, just two weeks af­ter retiring from the NHS af­ter al­most 40 years. Her 29-yearold daugh­ter, Jenna Hughes, said: “She’d had lumps be­fore and I’d gone to ap­point­ments with her, but they had al­ways turned out to be cysts, so it re­ally knocked us for six. Luck­ily, my dad and I were both with her at the di­ag­no­sis.”

Ali­son, now 58, had been booked in for a lumpec­tomy in the Septem­ber fol­lowed by ra­dio­ther­apy and chemo­ther­apy but her blood pres­sure was dan­ger­ously high and medics post­poned the op­er­a­tion un­til Novem­ber. In that time, the can­cer spread into sur­round­ing lymph nodes.

Af­ter retiring, she had planned to spend time look­ing af­ter her grand­son, Nathaniel, then aged one, and do­ing bank shifts as a nurse. As her chemo­ther­apy got un­der way, work­ing one or two days a week in a men­tal health unit for older peo­ple “kept her sane”. “That was my nor­mal,” she said. She also cred­its the Beatson staff for keep­ing her pos­i­tive, say­ing: “There was no doom and gloom, that’s what I liked”.

But Ali­son said the emo­tional toll was harder at times for her hus­band and chil­dren. “It brought us closer to­gether but I was also very aware of the im­pact it was hav­ing on Jenna and [my son] El­liot and my hus­band, John,” she said. “He’s an ab­so­lute softie and I had to be re­ally se­vere with him and say, ‘no­body has told me I’m dy­ing so you re­ally need to stop this – stop look­ing at me as if I’m go­ing to die to­mor­row’. He re­ally strug­gled with it.”

Now, more than three years on, Jenna is ex­pect­ing her sec­ond child and John is set to turn 50. “That’s our fo­cus in 2019,” said Ali­son. “My hus­band will be 50, Jenna is hav­ing a baby, and we have a lot to look for­ward to. And I con­tinue to look for­ward.”

Jenna says her mother is also “more spon­ta­neous”, adding: “She’s al­ways been a bit of a scat­ter-cash but def­i­nitely more so now. If she wants to book a hol­i­day or a trip, she’ll just go for it.

“I don’t take life for granted so much any­more ei­ther. It’s one of those things that you al­ways think is go­ing to hap­pen to some­one else, so when it hap­pens to you, you don’t take things so much for granted any more.”

Not ev­ery­one feels like a sur­vivor, though. Lisa Ma­her, 32, in­sists she was “just lucky”.

She said: “I don’t class my­self as a ‘sur­vivor’ – I was just lucky that the NHS of­fers screen­ing pro­grammes. Other peo­ple have been through way worse than me.”

The the­atre nurse, from Stepps near Glas­gow, was di­ag­nosed with cer­vi­cal can­cer just days af­ter her 25th birth­day fol­low­ing a rou­tine smear test.

“The news was a big shock. I didn’t think I would be di­ag­nosed with can­cer, es­pe­cially at such a young age,” she said.

At the time, Lisa and her part­ner, An­drew – now her hus­band – were try­ing for a baby but the di­ag­no­sis “turned that on its head”.

Her hus­band said: “The first ap­point­ment was hard as the con­sul­tant was quite blunt with Lisa about the pos­si­ble out­comes, which I know they have to be.

“I found that hard as she was a young girl, with no fam­ily, so hear­ing words like ‘hys­terec­tomy’ was dev­as­tat­ing. We’d just bought a house and had been try­ing for a baby. Af­ter her di­ag­no­sis, Lisa was pretty cut up and did strug­gle as we had to put thoughts of ba­bies be­hind us.”

For­tu­nately, the can­cer had been de­tected at the ear­li­est stage – 1A1 – when it was eas­ily treated and cur­able. She now has two chil­dren – a daugh­ter, six, and a two-year-old son.

Lisa said: “I was so lucky that the can­cer was caught early and I was able to have treat­ment to re­move the can­cer­ous cells. Be­cause I was try­ing for a baby when I was di­ag­nosed it’s thanks to cer­vi­cal screen­ing and early de­tec­tion that I’ve been able to go on and have two beau­ti­ful chil­dren. If I hadn’t gone for my smear test when I did my story could’ve been very dif­fer­ent.”

Her hus­band added: “With ev­ery check-up there was a feel­ing of dread but, as time has passed, we feel so much bet­ter about things. What Lisa dealt with, and came through, has made us so grate­ful for what we have now.”

Liz Clark, who was told she had lung can­cer, with hus­band Iain, left; Ali­son Daly, 58, with daugh­ter Jenna Owens, top; Lisa Ma­her was di­ag­nosed with cer­vi­cal can­cer aged just 25

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