Nicola, from Stone, Staffordshire, was diagnosed with Bile Duct Cancer after severe stomach pain suggested that it was more than just gall stones causing her symptoms. After picking up a leaflet in her local cancer centre, she attended a Living Well course and found a space to talk freely and explore her mind, body and emotions.
"I had been given the time and space to talk about the return of my cancer, to talk freely, to cry freely and to explore again my mind, body and emotions."
2016 started like any other year for me (and any other mum) – busy. My biggest concern was that I was going to be hitting 45 in March of that year and it felt like a bit of a milestone! After a busy Christmas and both my children’s January birthdays I noticed I was a bit more tired than usual and was experiencing stomach pains.
I was not unduly worried about my health but I visited my GP who suggested gall stones and organised for me to have a blood test. However, within a few days, my stomach pains became worse and I appeared jaundiced. An out of hours GP (to whom I am eternally grateful) sent me to the hospital to be checked and admitted. I spent a week in hospital having various scans and tests and I remained largely unconcerned, in fact I felt like a fraud for taking up a bed space. It was only by the end of the week that I began to worry something more serious might be wrong with me, but cancer never crossed my mind.
After a few more tests I ended up undergoing the Whipple Procedure (surgery to remove part of the pancreas along with the duodenum, the lower part of the stomach, the gallbladder and part of the common bile duct) four days after my appointment with a surgeon and two weeks before my 45th birthday.
My diagnosis was given to me six weeks after the surgery and was confirmed as the relatively rare Bile Duct Cancer. The oncologist offered me six rounds of chemotherapy which I took – anything to maximize my chances of survival.
The news hit me like a ton of bricks, I had gone from ‘worrying’ about hitting 45 years old to worrying about staying alive. My surgeon would not even confirm to me that I would be alive by the end of the year. My children were eight and 11 at the time and I could not contemplate leaving them. The diagnosis devastated the entire family and it was hard to see my children, my partner, my parents, my brother, my wider family and friends react to the news. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for bringing such upset to my loved ones. I felt fear for myself, worry for my children, anger at the situation and uncertainty for the future.
I have nothing but praise for my care and treatment from the NHS, but felt lost emotionally and practically on how to move forward and live with my diagnosis and treatment. Cancer is such a scary word, that I couldn’t even bring myself to say it out loud.
By chance, at the Cancer Centre, I picked up a leaflet for Penny Brohn’s Living Well course. I was pleased to see that this was run locally, which allowed me to attend whilst continuing with my course of chemotherapy.
The Living Well course was like a breath of fresh air. Being in a room with people at different points on their cancer journey was therapeutic. I felt relief at being in a situation where I didn’t have to explain myself or apologise for anything, a place I could talk freely without the worry about upsetting anyone. A place where I could understand how others felt and they could understand me. No matter how hard your family and friends try, no one can truly know how you feel unless you have experienced the situation yourself.
The course helped on a practical and emotional level and opened my eyes to the various ways I could help myself during my cancer journey. We were provided with the tools to guide us and were encouraged to find practical changes that we could incorporate into our lives. We were asked to set achievable targets in the areas that we felt able to change. There’s no pressure to ‘try it all’ or set impractical targets. The atmosphere was one of nurturing and encouragement. The beauty of the whole life approach is that you can take up various aspects as and when you feel ready. During my chemo course, increasing my exercise level was not practical or achievable, but it is something I am looking to pick up now.
After my initial course of chemotherapy finished I had a relatively normal year, where I was back to work, feeling fine, going on holiday and resuming my normal life. I went for a routine check-up in October 2017 and was told my tumour marker in my blood test was up, this was confirmed by a scan. I was told that the cancer was back on my liver and also the operation site. Again, my reaction was one of horror and devastation. I was offered a six month chemotherapy course starting November 2017, which I undertook.
My first thought on the news that my cancer had returned was Penny Brohn UK. I enrolled on The Approach course – a follow up to Living Well. I travelled to Bristol a couple of days after my first cycle of chemotherapy, feeling pretty rotten physically and emotionally. I was scared about the return of my cancer, I was feeling tired from the chemotherapy and generally unhappy with the world. My two night, three day stay at the National Centre was truly an uplifting and positive experience. I had been given the time and space to talk about the return of my cancer, to talk freely, to cry freely and to explore again my mind, body and emotions. I returned home a different person.
Where am I now on my journey? I have just finished my six month course of chemotherapy and I am generally feeling pretty positive. I continue to undertake many of the things I have learnt through Penny Brohn UK. I have regular reiki sessions, I have joined a meditation group and I continue to try and cook healthily at all times, avoiding processed food and sugar.
I know, from what I’ve learnt at Penny Brohn UK, there is much I can do to make myself feel better, emotionally and physically. I feel empowered that I am able to help myself, to make a difference to my prognosis and outlook. I’m grateful to the inspiration and support I have received through the charity and hope that many others can find the same benefits that I found.