When Annie, from Bath, was told, at 46, that she had metastasised lung cancer, when she had always been health conscious, sporty and mindful of the effect of food and lifestyle, it was a complete shock.
"I’m convinced my positive attitude, family and friends’ support, and all I’ve learnt at Penny Brohn UK has allowed me to beat the odds, stay focused and help my body and mind."
A silly, dry cough at the beginning of winter doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary, especially when the GP says your lungs sound lovely and clear. As it was winter 2015 and many family and friends had bad colds that lasted weeks, I didn’t worry and gave my body time to fight what I thought was a virus. I’d lost some weight, had big, dark bags under my eyes and continuous heavy sweats at night. All cancer symptoms, but which could be attributed to other causes. After six weeks with the cough, I returned to my GP with the intention of getting an X-ray. So began the life-changing roller coaster. After a quick diagnosis of tuberculosis, followed by many tests and bronchoscopy just before Christmas, I was diagnosed just before New Year with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer with metastasis.
Finding out I’d lung cancer was horrific, but to hear it’d spread to my bones and liver, and it was stage 4 was devastating. All I remember is the doctor saying sorry and they couldn’t offer a lung transplant, but they’d make sure I saw an oncologist ASAP. I couldn’t contain myself and cried like I’d never done before. I thought my world was crumbling in front of my eyes – I didn’t know how to fix things. I’ve always been extremely health conscious, exercised, never smoked or taken drugs. In recent years, I’d been introducing organic food into my diet and five weeks before diagnosis was on a cross trainer and pushed myself to the limit to see how much my lungs could take – how ironic! I slowly began to accept things, but why did my body not show any real signs of serious disease before? I couldn’t understand. Sometimes we just have to accept the unexplainable.
Telling my children and parents was probably the hardest thing ever. Thanks to an amazing Macmillan nurse and my husband, I quickly found the courage, strength and wisdom to tell my three grown up children. Our lives changed forever! Guilt enveloped me – how could I do this to them when they were focusing on their A levels and GCSEs, and the turmoil of being teenagers. This was time for them to focus on themselves not me.
I saw an oncologist who retested for specific markers and anticipated and discovered I was EGFR+. This was a game changer because I could start a fairly new approved drug which helped me enormously, physically and psychologically. It gave me the optimism that I could influence treatment in many ways, allowing me to take control and use my management consulting background to find a way forward. I called it ‘all integrating scope to dealing with cancer’. Almost immediately I started acupuncture, ate almost 100% organic, read many books about the power of the mind and cancer, and set myself the objective of fine-tuning my diet and to keep as fit as I could. All elements I thought could help the drugs work best. This is when I found the amazing Penny Brohn UK.
My sister-in-law, who works for an insurance company looking after cancer patients, recommended Penny Brohn UK. Initially, I wasn’t sure as I had a system in place that worked. All I needed was a dietitian specialised in cancer. I couldn’t find one in Bath, so contacted Penny Brohn UK which suggested I do their Introduction course and see an in-house dietitian. The Bristol Whole Life Approach was everything I needed and more.
We watched a short movie of cancer cells attacking healthy ones. Looking cancer in the face felt like I knew what I was up against. It materialised my fears, gave me an image to work with and I imagined my T cells attacking the cancer. It also invigorated my determination to fight cancer the best I could.
Understanding the Approach made me feel relieved and reassured that I had started on the right track, but that there was more I could do. It introduced me to relaxation techniques and their importance. Soon after, I started yoga and mindfulness. Both things I now love and couldn’t do without. The course allowed me to feel normal whilst living with cancer and see that I’d experienced many of the feelings, emotions and experience other Penny Brohn UK participants described. I was not alone.
I also took many other Penny Brohn UK courses. I attended the wellbeing mind course, which I found useful and informative; a two-day residential Approach course, which I attended with my husband. This gave me insight into what a partner goes through when living with someone with cancer, and opened a window to my emotions and fears.
I also attended a two-day course on emotion with my daughter, which allowed me to realise that being strong doesn’t mean that I should never cry in front of my children or not mention that I have bad days, worries and pain. It allowed me to see that if I want my children to open up, I had to lead by example. Equally, it allowed my daughter to better understand what it’s like to live with cancer and to explore her feelings and fears. The course channelled my need for emotional help and culminated in me seeing, for a time, a fantastic Dorothy House Hospice counsellor. I was also lucky enough to attend art days as a way of channelling my thoughts and feelings; and joined a cooking demo to refocus and reinvigorate my motivation for a healthy diet.
Finally and foremost, Penny Brohn UK’s Approach allows me to have control over my life, invigorates my determination to beat the odds and live and enjoy life with cancer, or, perhaps even live cancer-free some day.
I started chemo as biological treatment started to become ineffective. I was on one of the hardest chemo treatments – not even my doctor thought I’d finish the four cycles. I’d few side effects and did remarkably well. Subsequently, I’ve been on chemo maintenance treatment for a year and continue to do well.
I’m convinced my positive attitude, family and friends’ support, and all I’ve learnt at Penny Brohn UK has allowed me to beat the odds, stay focused and help my body and mind.
I feel good and strong enough to give back and hopefully help as many people living with cancer as possible.
I donate to, give my time and experience to Penny Brohn UK, a charity I believe so passionately about, as well as supporting other national cancer charities.
Whenever possible, I talk to nurses, other cancer patients and medic friends about Penny Brohn UK’s benefits and approach. Hopefully, this will start a ripple effect and many more will use their free services.