The realisation that it is 30 years since my cancer first manifested itself has prompted me to write this cancer blog. As I am part of that small percentage that has survived (thus far) recurring and metaststatic cancer, I feel it might offer some support and encouragement to those currently in a similar daunting situation.
My cancer story is long and convoluted, so I shall write it in episodes, as it will be easier for the reader to digest (and for me to write), but a word of warning, it may become, by the nature of my cancers, more than a little graphic and as I am sure you will appreciate, not the easiest of cancers to talk about…
I was living in Zambia, with my teenage children away in the UK, my elder son at university and the younger one doing his A Levels at boarding school. It was 1985 and had been quite a year; we had experienced a few burglaries at home, a very dear friend and his companion had been killed in a road accident just outside the town and another dear friend in the UK had died quite suddenly during surgery for cancer of the spine.
With all the stresses I had undergone that year and with my eldest no longer eligible for free flights from the company his father worked for, it is no wonder I was at a low point in my life. I was divorced from my first husband and my second husband and I were struggling financially. We lived a fairly hand-to-mouth existence with me padding out his income by selling my artwork. Regular airfares were completely out of the question for us and I was working furiously and saving towards an airfare in 1987, in order to go to the UK for my elder son’s 21st birthday, his graduation and Christmas.
Over the years I has suffered regular bouts of IBS at varying degrees, so when it increased that year I just put it down to the additional stress. I had been in a great deal of pain and discomfort before my younger son’s Christmas visit and when I developed other symptoms I thought it was time to see my doctor, who referred me to a surgeon. Unfortunately he wasn’t the slightest bit concerned with my symptoms and fears and I was more than a little alarmed when he didn’t even examine me! From my notes he declared it was haemorrhoids and didn’t recommend surgery, as, according to him it only had a 50% success rate, so he just sent me away with a prescription for some cream to apply to the affected area.
Going to the toilet had become increasingly painful, to a point where I would have my left arm resting on the washbasin and the right hand would be clawing the wall with my fingernails, sweat and tears rolling down my face and I seemed to be swinging between constipation and diarrhoea. At the time I had a studio in a friend’s garage and one day the urge was so great that I just had to dash to the loo ASAP. I started work at 7.30am and my friend wasn’t yet up and the house door still locked. Unfortunately the urge was so great and the pain so excruciating that I just had to go in her garden – and hoped the gardener wouldn’t see me!
A lesion had developed just at the edge of my anus (visible with the aid of a mirror) and I suspected the worst, but was determined not to let my son know, so that he could enjoy his holiday as usual. I would get back to the hospital just as soon as he left for the UK. In spite of the pain I tried not to show it during the following month, but was probably more demonstrative than usual in showing my love for him and telling him just how proud I was of him and his brother (who was spending Christmas with my parents) and just how much I cared for them.
The school holidays holidays over, I returned to the hospital in January to see my doctor, Indira. By this time I could hardly sit on my seat in the hospital waiting room. Indira eventually called me into her consulting room where she examined me again. She shared my concern – and said I must go back to see the surgeon, but seeing my face she asked if I didn’t want to do this. I asked what would be the point when he was convinced I was only suffering from some minor ailment that could be cured with creams. ‘OK’, she said, shall I ask George if he’ll see you?’ George was a friend – and orthopaedic surgeon, so it seemed highly unlikely that he would deal with colorectal matters. Anyway, she asked me to return to the waiting room and she would call George and see what he said.
A few minutes later I was called back, with the news that George would see me at his clinic on Thursday. He was more than a little disturbed at what he found and told me to be on the ward at 7.30am the next day where he performed a biopsy. I was in such pain when I came around from the anaesthetic as I had been packed like a stuffed turkey. A nurse put me into a warm bath to soften the dressing, but hardly gave it time to do so when she rather brutally dragged it out. I cringe at the recollection, but that was only the harbinger of worse to follow.
George told me to wait two weeks for the results, but 10 days later I received a call from him just after 5pm, though he wouldn’t discuss the histology report on the phone. I knew at once it was bad news and I was to see him the following morning and bring my husband with me! Yes, it was cancer and with no treatment available in Zambia, he instructed me to get to South Africa or the UK without delay; time was of the essence.