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
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