Michelle was diagnosed with ovarian cancer whilst finalising plans to move to Switzerland. She discovered Penny Brohn UK through our Treatment Support Clinic.
"I think Penny Brohn saved my life and that they continue to. They’re life-changing and everything I’ve learnt I carry with me."
I was in Switzerland – plans were set or being finalised – to move there with my partner, Bettina for a year. But I was diagnosed with cancer. Everything turned upside down. I came back for treatment, moving in with my brother Simon and his partner.
I started feeling unwell, but put it down to previously having endometriosis (a common condition where some womb lining goes outside the womb). There were a lot of similar symptoms. But I felt a lump on my left abdomen and localised pain, which was different. I thought ‘get checked out’.
I went to the GP, they sent me to hospital and I was admitted. I had lots of tests and, to my horror, they found a grapefruit-sized tumour. I needed surgery, a total hysterectomy. The surgeon said the tumour needed to come out ASAP and if it was cancer I’d need treatment including chemo, but I didn’t really hear this – I was focusing on my major operation.
After the six-hour operation, the consultant told me it was cancer. I screamed and cried, but felt, in a strange way, that I’d be all right because I had great support.
The hardest thing was telling my dad Tom, 74, who came across from home in Ireland. He was just happy to see me awake. It was hard to tell him. The hardest thing was seeing my family distressed after my diagnosis – cancer impacts everyone around you. He was a great help because he supported my mum Laura as she faced breast cancer aged 42 – interestingly the same age I was diagnosed. When mum was diagnosed I was just 14 years old and my brother aged nine. She recovered, but sadly died from a brain haemorrhage at 60.
Everything happened so fast, within a month and just before Christmas, I was starting a six-month chemo course. I learnt to accept this, it was what I needed. I tried to stop thinking about it being poison. It was gruelling and exhausting every three weeks. Thankfully, at the initial consultation, the nurse told me about various services including Penny Brohn UK. It really appealed to me, so I made enquiries and went there in the late January.
I attended the Treatment Support Clinic – it was really brilliant. I was extremely nervous, but it’s an incredibly relaxing taster and gateway to the charity’s services. The lead doctor, Catherine Zollman, was wonderful. There were around 12 on the course and it felt strangely comforting to be surrounded by people going through the same. You are listened to and accepted. I felt very understood.
They highlighted some activities, the first was Nordic walking. I was sat next to Jen and we said: ‘shall we give it a go?’ It showed us that you can get active even though chemo can feel debilitating with lots of side-effects. Walking was an antidepressant, I was hooked and we went every chance we could. It offered relaxation too.
We had acupuncture, which brought together everything – what it meant to have cancer. Chemo was taking its toll and it helped with nausea and fatigue. The effects were great. That’s what Penny Brohn is about, giving you a space to think about things, but also the tools to encourage thinking about ‘how I can live well with cancer’.
I enjoyed qigong. It was great, a real marriage between mind, spirit and body. I was having lots of nerve and joint pain, so this gentle movement was very welcome.
Chemo continued and its effects were more apparent. I lost my hair and decided not to have a wig – I’m not a wig kind of girl, so was going to Penny Brohn bald and alone too. I suppose this meant I was starting to accept where I was on my journey. But when I came to Penny Brohn any nerves about how I looked or felt fell away and I could see a way forward. I recognised a lot of what others in the group were saying and I felt safe.
Treatment was causing a lot of digestive problems. A key thing Penny Brohn offers is a nutritional therapist. I thought I ate quite healthily, but I discovered changes to make me feel better. It was a real eye-opener, I thought about what was on my plate.
Everything seemed to be going well until, unfortunately, I was re-diagnosed. I had a check up and, to my utter surprise, a scan revealed a recurrence in my neck and I needed surgery and radiotherapy. It was a massive shock because it was so far from where the original cancer was and that it’d returned so quickly.
Penny Brohn was a real comfort – they were there when I needed them. I booked back onto a Treatment Support Clinic. Radiotherapy’s effects are a different beast – I couldn’t eat for a month. It was incapacitating, but I could speak with the charity’s nutritional therapist and there were things I could eat, so felt better.
I slowly felt stronger and returned to Nordic walking. Before long I was going every week. I got to grips with the feeling of facing recurrence because I went from being over the moon and ‘all clear’. Thanks to Penny Brohn I felt reassured and stronger to manage my daily life. I felt hope, not frightened of the future and ready to make the most of my life.
I think Penny Brohn saved my life and that they continue to. They’re life-changing and everything I’ve learnt I carry with me. It’s really valuable and what I’ve learnt and the strength I feel, especially when I’m not so well, is great. I can close my eyes and imagine myself there – feeling ok. I thank everyone there because they’re lifesaving and life-changing.