Columnist Yvie Burnett recently appealed to readers to get checked early for cancer, and asked them to share their stories. Elizabeth Miles, 61, was one of the many readers who got in touch…
It all started in May this year when I had an unexpected bleed with clots. I had gone through the menopause 10 years ago. I phoned NHS 24 right away and they made an out of hours appointment for me to be seen by a duty doctor at my local hospital. He examined me and sent me straight up to the gynaecology ward where I was given an internal examination and a CT scan. He said he would talk to the senior registrar and get back to me. My husband and I waited an hour or so before the doctor came back and said the senior registrar had a look at my scan and wanted me to have a biopsy done. ‘When?’ I asked. He surprised me by saying ‘now.’
I won’t pretend the biopsy was easy going. It was very painful but I was told to expect that before she proceeded. I then waited an unbelievable four weeks for the results. Those four weeks were the longest of my life. Eventually I received a phone call asking me to go into the hospital and see the doctor who had taken my biopsy. I had made up my mind there was nothing seriously wrong as it had been such a long wait for the results. Surely I would have heard long before now if I had anything serious?
The doctor showed us to a room and informed me she had the results and I had tested positive for endometrial cancer. I don’t remember anything she said after that.
I looked at my husband who squeezed my hand and looked at the doctor. I could see her lips move but I heard nothing. I watched a pigeon walk about on the roof outside the window. After what seemed like hours she handed me a booklet produced by Macmillan Cancer Support stating ‘All about Endometrial Cancer’ which was all I read. We went home in a daze. I couldn’t even think of anything to say to my family; my husband phoned them to tell them what had happened. My daughter was amazing through all of it.
Three weeks later and I still hadn’t heard anything from the hospital. The waiting, again, was awful, for my family as well as myself and my husband. Eventually my daughter phoned the hospital and I was asked to come in to see the senior consultant. All the time I was thinking the news must be terrible or they wouldn’t be asking me to meet the senior consultant. I was surprised to find he had asked me in to apologise for no one getting back to me before now and to reassure me that he was confident the cancer was caught early enough to be cured. Of course they wouldn’t know until he did the op. I was to have a total hysterectomy with removal of ovaries, tubes and cervix. They would also take samples from the fatty tissue in my abdomen to test for cancer cells. He added that this was not elective surgery, this had to be done to save my life. He gave me a date for the operation there and then – July 20, 8am, same ward, three weeks from now.
Everything would be done in the same hospital (St Johns in Livingston) and based in the same department and for that I was glad.
I had hardly slept since my diagnosis, couldn’t think straight, couldn’t carry on with writing for an online news source. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh my God! I have cancer’. I wasn’t thinking anything at all and that was the most bizarre thing. I don’t know if that is what denial is but I never thought I didn’t have cancer, just didn’t take it in that I had.
I also did not want to talk about it with anyone. I was too emotional when I had to refer to it. I called the number in the Macmillan booklet but did not read the booklet. I didn’t want to know what could happen and what the various cancer stages meant. Macmillan were lovely, they were informed and they were empathetic. They answered questions I didn’t even ask and seemed to know just what I would need. They deserve to get all the funding they need.
My op date came round and I was just so glad it would all be over soon. My husband drove me there, we walked into the ward and he was more or less told to go. The nurse that day wasn’t one of the more sympathetic ones; I met them later. I was shown my bed in a four-person ward and told the aneasthetist would be coming to see me soon and meantime I would be asked a few questions by the nurse. The usual formalities, was I allergic to anything, family history, did I understand what was going to happen and why I was having the operation.
WHEELED TO THEATRE
It was two hours before I was taken to the theatre. My husband could have stayed longer and I would have appreciated him being there. He was almost as apprehensive as I. Those two hours are unaccounted for. I do not have a memory of what I did or who I spoke to after the nurse had taken her notes and left. My next memory is being wheeled to the theatre in the bed I had settled on in the ward. Why are theatres always so far away from the wards? The appointments secretary had asked earlier if she could observe the op as she had never seen the type I was having. I agreed. I would be having keyhole surgery to remove tubes and ovaries and a vaginal removal of my womb and cervix. If I started bleeding or there were any complications I would have the more invasive operation of being cut down the front of my abdomen.
Finally we arrived at the anaesthetic room. I was given a clear mask which fed me oxygen and anaesthetic gas, and asked to take big breaths. Happy to oblige. Just get it over with. I was then informed the substance now being put into the cannula in the back of my hand would send me to sleep in seconds.
I remember no more until I woke up in the ward almost three hours later. There were two women who already had been to theatre and one waiting to go. The two who had been were receiving pain relief and saying they were sore.
I NO LONGER HAVE CANCER!
I was just so, so glad it was gone. I no longer had cancer and I was not in any pain. I no longer have cancer. I NO LONGER HAVE CANCER! I could have hugged everyone in that room.
They told me the operation had gone well but would not get the results of the biopsies taken for four weeks. Why do these things take so long? The effect the waiting has is really detrimental to psychological health. It became apparent that I was the only one who was there for a cancer op. I thought we were all there for the same thing.
I was discharged two days later and felt as well as can be expected after having such a big operation. No lifting, no housework, no bending from the waist. Wear the DVT prevention stockings for at least six weeks and rest for the same amount of time. I got home and followed their instructions to the letter.
Four days later I was re-admitted with sepsis and fluid retention. I felt a whole lot worse than I had after the operation. I was given a catheter and hooked to intravenous antibiotics for six days and nights. Again, no one in the ward was there for cancer treatment. Suddenly it all became too much for me on the fourth day. I felt traumatised, ill, weak and emotional.
When I saw my husband come to visit that night I started crying and couldn’t stop. He was upset to find me like this but I felt I had been strong for everyone else for so long and the feeling was one of trauma. The nurse was very good. She listened. I felt that perhaps they could have engaged a bit more with the patients. We are scared, emotional, uncertain and we do have a life other than lying in hospital feeling useless and lost.
I got home after the sixth day. I have to admit I was feeling better than I had done for a while. I was given yet another course of antibiotics for seven days and painkillers which I had to take regularly in order to prevent the pain from starting in the first place. I took it easy and followed orders.
Just over a week later I was given the news by telephone that my cancer had been grade 1a, hadn’t spread anywhere else and I did not require further treatment. She thought she would make my weekend by phoning me. She made my decade! I could not have had better news. Who needs the lottery! I burst onto tears. I could actually feel the huge weight lift from me. A weight I did not know I was carrying until someone took it away. I thought I had coped with the fact I had cancer so well. Now I didn’t have it I was in bits! I texted everyone in my family. They never deserted me. Flowers arrived and cards, texts, phone calls, emails. Every time I received those tokens of love I cried. Now my thoughts went to those who hadn’t been so lucky.
I am not sure why women hold off seeing a doctor when they have symptoms that are not normal. It could be a niggling pain, a bleed, indigestion, change in bowel habits. If I had ignored that bleed – and it’s mainly thanks to my daughter’s nagging that I didn’t – it would have been an entirely different story. I would urge anyone reading this who has worrying symptoms to see their doctor. Do not put it off. It could save your life.