We went to A&E with suspected pneumonia. An X-ray and ultrasound revealed fluid in the chest cavity, not the lung. Almost four litres of fluid was drained and a sample went for testing. Her mother died from bowel cancer in her 40s and Sandra expected the results to show cancer of some form.
The wait was agony, but Sandra seemed calm. Doctors told us they found secondary cancer, further tests would show the primary cause, although they already anticipated ovarian cancer. A scan confirmed this, showing cancer in the ovaries, Fallopian tubes and some in her abdomen. Further consultations revealed that it was treatable but not curable, with a 50% chance of surviving five years.
I was devastated, but Sandra took it in her stride. Her strong faith and inner strength, plus expectation of the result, brought her peace. Her only concerns were breaking the news to family and the impact on me.
One of the most difficult parts of the journey was how to tell our family. We agonised for days. The first decision was to tell our three children, but they should tell our grandchildren, unless they would like us to do it. We decided to tell each of our children the same information separately and answer any questions as honestly as possible. If we had not believed Sandra would have a few years left, with the prospect of some cure, we would have approached this differently. We decided to withhold the prognosis ‘treatable but not curable’ to soften the blow.
To stand a chance of surviving five years, Sandra endured chemotherapy and its side effects. Not once during did she complain or show fear or anxiety. She accepted it as part of things. She also had her ovaries, Fallopian tubes, appendix and omentum removed. During Sandra’s four-and-a-half years with cancer she underwent four series of chemo. Side effects included nausea, hair loss, fatigue and loss of feeling in fingers and toes.
She combated nausea with the prescribed anti-sickness regime. She was unfazed with hair loss and, as it thinned, asked me to cut it all off, quite content with baldness. I thought she looked fantastic because it put focus on her beautiful eyes. Fatigue was ongoing, but she learnt to cope. Rest was the best medicine, but she was determined to keep active, especially with gardening.
By July 2017, Sandra was finding treatment hard and a scan revealed the cancer was spreading and chemo was no longer keeping it at bay. We knew we were coming to the end of our journey and Sandra wanted to make her funeral plans. She was remarkably calm and at peace. She knew God was with her and her strength from that helped us all face the future. Sandra, stoic as ever, passed away peacefully on 22 September 2017.
An important part of Sandra’s treatment was Penny Brohn UK. We heard about Penny Brohn from Sandra’s oncology clinic. She wanted to explore any avenue and discovered the free Living Well course.
I confess to being cynical about it, but am pleased to say – I was wrong! The Bristol Whole Life Approach explored areas including diet, fitness, mindfulness and spirituality, and that these work in unison to give your body the best chance.
Facilitators were extremely empathetic to all attendees and the setting is superb. We also visited for lunch or just to sit in the lovely, peaceful gardens, which always gave Sandra comfort. Sandra attended several more nutritional courses and a key benefit was meeting others in similar positions, which she found very therapeutic.
I fully recommend anyone with cancer and one of their close supporters to explore the benefits and both attend.
Sandra was truly inspirational and, without doubt, the stoicism, inherent but also developed through courses such as Living Well, gave her an added strength.