The day before the Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey, producing for ITV News
I finished chemo on 30th November 2010. I was elated. I’d done my stint, got through the barbaric treatment and I was ready to rebuild my life. I’d be taking Tamoxifen for five years, a drug that can stop cancer coming back or spreading. My cancer was strongly hormone receptive so I was hopeful this drug would keep the cancer at bay.
By March I was ready to go back to work. I love my job, it sounds cheesy but it’s more than a job, it’s a way of life. Journalism to a large extent defined who I was. I would happily talk careers to new acquaintances, the, ‘what do you do?’ question was never dreaded. I’d worked hard to get where I was and I loved what I did.
At the end of March I went back at ITV News working for three or four days each week. On some shifts I was a field producer at Westminster, interviewing politicians, helping political correspondents gather material for the evening or ten o’clock news. I felt lucky on every journey to work, riding on the bus over Lambeth Bridge with a view of the Houses of Parliament. This is where I work! I get to see history happen.
By the 27th of May I’d be giving up work once again. My few months of a normal life, working, meeting friends in the pub, behaving like a normal 28 year old, would come to a sharp and cruel end; the cancer was back.
I’d been complaining about a pain in my lower back since January. It wasn’t there all the time, only when I went running; I was certain it wouldn’t be anything serious. The mere fact that I’d been practically bed bound for five months and now I was up and running around suggested I’d just overdone it. But I’m a sensible girl (if not occasionally neurotic!) and I took myself off to my consultant. A bone scan was ordered and something showed up, a slight ‘hotspot’ in my pelvis area.
“We don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” the registrar reassured me, but an x-ray was ordered just in case. The thing about a cancer diagnosis is, it never ever leaves you. As I lay on the bed to be given the x-ray the fear hit me, my chest tightened. On the simple act of lying on a bed I felt the tears coming to my eyes, a painless procedure but with gargantuan consequences.
Were my bones being eaten away by cancer? Was the pain the weakening and fracturing of the bones as an army of disease attacked? Or was it a simple muscle strain and the x-ray would reveal clean, strong and bright white bones free of any deadly dark spots.
The results, to my utter relief, were the latter. No bone cancer for me. I scolded myself for being such a worrier, all the scans that I initially had before chemo had come back clear so I’d be pretty unlucky if the cancer had managed to grow just a few months after finishing a course of chemo that poisoned me half to death.
Even though I could carry on as normal, feeling grateful for every day, at the forefront of my mind I always knew that every morning when I got up and felt well there was someone out there going through chemo. They’d be waking up, looking at their clock and wishing the day was already over, praying for the sickness to end, pulling at a clump of hair and amazed that it could fall out with such ease.
The pain went away for a while; I really had been worried about nothing. Then in early April I noticed it again. This time there was shooting pain down the inside of my left leg. I told my consultant again. “Is the pain there all the time?”
“Then it’s unlikely it’s cancer. The scans were clean, keep an eye on it, see how you go.”
You don’t challenge it because it’s what you want to hear. I want to be told it’s nothing so I take those answers and grab them with both hands and head for the door. The doctor says I’m fine so I must be.
Then it becomes difficult to walk, I’m hobbling around and limping. I go and see the registrar. It sounds like sciatica, let’s order an MRI to be sure. In the meantime Google becomes my best friend, typing the same thing in over and over again, willing the information to fit what I want to read. ‘Symptoms of bone cancer’ – a list of ailments, some of which apply to me, some which don’t.
The same goes for ‘symptoms of sciatica’ – another list and I know all too well this process is futile but I can’t help it. In the early days of diagnosis I called this habit of Googling grim stats and survival rates as cancer porn. I knew I shouldn’t be looking at it but I couldn’t help it. It did me no good and got me nowhere.
Something shows up on the scan. The doctors don’t know what it is but they need to do another MRI. I’m driving and I pull over and my heart sinks. How can this be? I dial Tom and I tell him, trying to recount the conversation word for word; was there any hint in the doctor’s voice that it was cancer? What exactly did she say? What did she know but wasn’t telling me?
I’m tearful and full of worry, the kind of worry that tightens your chest. I spend the weekend shopping. As shallow as that sounds it was a very real distraction. We had the Baftas on Sunday night; Tom was up for an award for producing a comedy show. We had a fantastic night, despite Tom’s show not winning. We drank too much, danced (despite the pain of my leg) but when we got home in the early hours the threat of the returning cancer tapped me on the shoulder and I burst into tears, the cocktail of anxiety and alcohol churning in my stomach as I sobbed over the toilet bowl.
Monday morning brought the grim reality of the MRI scan, then a week of waiting.