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Life in Limbo

Treatment finished five weeks ago now. I am relieved that after an arduous fortnight of pyrotechnical side affects it appears the symptoms have managed to settle and although I have a pitiful supply of energy it is good to have a bit more freedom and independence again. I have immense gratitude being able to visit the toilet without some form of pain relief.

Within the final weeks of treatment I had got to a point where I was constantly in the company of Iceberg, Buggernuts or the Funny Boy. All of whom adopted the role as my carer. I had around the clock supervision. They bought my food, prepared my meals, washed my clothes. I was chauffeured anywhere I wanted to go. Even at nights if I couldn’t sleep someone would sit with me. Sometimes I would get upset thinking about the unthinkable where other nights it would simply be the steroids keeping me awake. It is only now as I get back to ‘normality’ I can see how dependant I had become. I was actually proud of myself having slept at home alone whilst the Funny Boy was on a night shift. I was anxious ‘What if I don’t feel well? What if start to feel scared again? What if…’ But these are the things I am learning to accept as my new ‘normality’.

What is normality? Normality was life before cancer (BC) where I would happily be at my desk for 8am every working day. Where a pre-work run and post work gym or hockey session happened most days of the week. Weekends BC were jam packed. Saturdays were dominated by hockey fixtures, family visits and the odd glass of wine. Sunday mornings BC were made for long runs along Crammond promenade followed by a guilt-free afternoon where I could eat whatever took my fancy. Goal setting BC was a favourite of mine, wether it be holidays, marathons or career aspirations – I loved having something to work toward. As I await the results I am stuck in limbo waiting to move to the next BC (life beyond cancer). Getting back to ‘normality’ in the meantime is difficult. ‘Normailty’ now is uncomfortably hot flushes, limited energy supply and an increasingly short temper – largely fuelled by frustration. I get frustrated by the fact one game of table tennis leaves me needing a lie down for the rest of the day. The sound of bells made me think of Christmas, possibly my favourite time of the year, and I was angry at the thought of how many more will I get to enjoy? I get upset knowing the Funny Boy and I will never (biologically) have children. This is my new normality. I am adapting to the changes – both physically and emotionally. As I am reunited with friends and colleagues I have been flooded with messages of ‘you look great’ and ‘nobody can tell you’ve been ill’. This has been a source of comfort especially as I look at myself and struggle to see beyond my sweaty brow and increasingly large love handles! My peers still see me – the old me – and that is good but in some ways it’s difficult. They can’t understand why one day I will be fit to sit at my desk all day and the next I will struggle to get out of bed. They won’t appreciate how a simple ‘See ya later skiver!’ is the last thing I need to hear when it’s taken all my strength to get me to work in the first place. How can I expect my peers to understand something that I am still getting accustomed to?

As I rebuild my social life and return to work I find myself setting new goals with a firm understanding that these can easily be changed following my next appointment. However I refuse to let cancer deny me the life I am living right now. The Funny Boy and I had an incredible engagement party surrounded by loved ones which inspired us to start planning our wedding. The date has been set, groomsmen and bridal party recruited and our honeymoon is rapidly turning into the trip of a lifetime. When I ran the marathon last year I had to prepare my body and mind. I am learning to adapt to my new normality and much like the marathon this means listening to my body and more importantly thinking positive thoughts. So #FUCancer! I am Heather, I am strong and I won’t let you beat me.

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The End of the Beginning

*DISCLAIMER* The following is not for the faint of heart. PS. You may want to cross your legs!

Twenty-three sessions of radiotherapy – done. Five sessions of chemotherapy – done. Three sessions of brachytherapy – done. Six weeks – done.

The final week of treatment was very difficult. I was admitted into hospital for my final two sessions of brachytherapy. Brachytherapy is internal radiotherapy which targets the tumour directly. As a result this allows for a high dose of radiation. The treatment itself lasts a mere five minutes per session however the preparation involves a great deal of discomfort. Each session requires a general anaesthetic so an applicator and sleeve can be inserted to my cervix to direct the radiation to the tumour. In order to protect my bladder and bowels from the treatment the doctors had to ‘pack my vagina’ to keep them out of the way. Sounds glamorous, huh? In addition to the sleeve, applicator and packing (!?) I required a catheter. Following the general anaesthetic I woke up to spend the remaining two days with my new array of accessories. Initially I thought the catheter would be a welcome break from the agony of cystitis – how wrong I was! It appears having a catheter aggravated my symptoms. I struggled to settle in the hospital. In hindsight this was a combination of discomfort, anxiety and fear.

Discomfort due to my new accessories and being forced to stay in bed. Anxiety about having a bowel movement. The catheter took care of number 1s but I was told if I felt the need for a number 2 I had to call a nurse to help. Similarly I would have to do this in my bed… Where I sleep! I am aware assisting someone in toilet matters is something nurses do everyday but not me. This was not something I was comfortable with. Thankfully I was constipated for the duration of my hospital stay. And finally I had the fear. I was in pain for the majority of my stay, largely caused by cystitis and cramping in my bladder. However I knew a greater pain was yet to come.

When it came to the evening I was prescribed a new cocktail of morphine based pain killers and a sleeping tablet. This provided a welcome sleep for all of 90 minutes and brought with it an increase in body temperature. I woke at 1am relieved that it was the final day of treatment but equally angry at the prospect of another 18 hours in hospital. Little did I know then that I would be awake for the remaining time and goodness knows I wish I wasn’t for parts of it.

Thursday! Final day of treatment! I was on a countdown and time was moving slowly. The morphine made me sick. Due to me being unable to move this required a costume change but finally I was called for my final session of brachytherapy. The finish line was in sight!

The treatment itself took a rapid five minutes. The experience that followed took an equal length of time however it felt much, much longer. The removal of the sleeve, applicator, packing and catheter was all done with no anaesthetic. I was armed with gas in one hand and a supportive nurse gripping the other. As welcome as these were they failed to mask the pain that followed. It felt like someone was excavating my cervix in search of dinosaur bones! Have you ever been in so much pain that it made you feel sick in the pit of your stomach? Thinking about it now sends shivers down my spine!

It was horrid but the second my cervix had been fully evacuated of all the paraphernalia I felt a sudden relief. The nausea remained but I could finally move again. Two days flat on my back left me walking like Bambi on ice and upon my first toilet visit my constipation suddenly lifted but I didn’t care because treatment was over and I was going home!

So for the first time in two months I have a full week of no hospital visits! As expected my side affects have flared up since finishing treatment plus I have spent a large part of the past five days sleeping. As previously described this whole process has been like getting hit by a truck very slowly. Hopefully I am at the peak of it now which means tomorrow brings the start of recovery. Although this is the finish line of treatment in a way it is only the beginning: in eight weeks time I will return to the hospital where the results of the treatment will be revealed. This revelation will lead to further hospital visits regardless. At best it will mean 3 month check ups for the next five years and who knows what the alternative is. Understandably the next eight weeks is going to be an emotional time for me and my family. What I do know is that I am incredibly lucky to have had my army of supporters to get me through the first step on what is sure to be an ultra marathon.

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The Funny Boy and I on the Final Day

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My front runners have been by my side every step of the way! This was right before my final general anaesthetic. The finish line is in sight!

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A wonderful welcome home where I was met with flowers, balloons, presents, motivational post its and the best part: my family!

The Difference a Day Makes

The cocktail of pain killers is having an affect on my creative writing skills.

What a week! Unfortunately the cystitis continued into the penultimate week of treatment. Yet again I found myself playing a game of Russian Roulette when going to the toilet. It would be a gamble wether I would escape the porcelain throne pain free or resort to setting up camp whilst the agony in my cramping bladder passed. At the start of this week I spent hours in the bath tub as it was the only source of instant pain relief. The Funny Boy started bringing me my meals whilst I was sat surrounded by bubbles watching endless episodes of Modern Family. It sounds a lot more relaxing than the reality!

It wasn’t until my final session of chemotherapy that I was completely honest about the severity of my cystitis. I wasn’t hiding the pain intentionally. The doctors and nurses had given me ample opportunity to discuss this. I just found it difficult to admit that cystitis was so painful. Also, the symptoms tend to be worse at night and by the time morning came around I always assumed it was getting better. Once again the impeccable staff at the cancer unit at Western General Hospital reassured me that there is always something they can do for the pain and that I just need to be honest. Upon completing chemo on Tuesday I breathed a huge sigh of relief – I feel like I am in the final stretch now.

Friday was challenging. I had my first session of bracytherapy. I had been mentally preparing for this for weeks. I knew what to expect however nothing can help avoid the fear of the unknown. At 7.30am I arrived at the hospital armed with my front runners; Iceberg, Buggernuts and Funny Boy. They did a great job at keeping me calm and distracted whilst I waited for the anaesthetist. The Funny Boy made me a card, Mum showed me wedding dresses and Dad… Well, dad managed to stay awake! I couldn’t get through any of this without them. When it came to say goodbye to them I could see how nervous they were but they all smiled and it was easy to leave knowing when I returned they would be there waiting for me.

Upon returning from surgery and waking up from general anaesthetic I was very uncomfortable and had a great deal of abdominal pain. I had to wait for the results of my CT scan and allow the doctors time to plan treatment before I could be seen. This meant several hours of lying still. I had a catheter and a machine to keep my legs from moving to prevent blood clots. In addition to the pain I found myself feeling very nauseous but also hungry. I felt helpless.  As I looked at the clock on the wall I realised it was less than 24 hours until I was due to be meeting for the Queen’s Baton Relay. This was the first time I began to question wether I would be able to run the relay…

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…but I was wrong!

I woke up at 7am on Saturday morning and the first thing I did was run through to the living room to put on BBC News showing the Baton Coverage live! I watched Daley Thompson pass the baton to Eilidh Child and turned to my Mum to say:

“I will be carrying that baton today!”

Upon the arrival of the rest of my family I felt like a child at Christmas! I found a new surge in energy levels which have been noticeably lacking over the past few weeks. It was an incredible feeling of anticipation. As the time drew nearer and I got into position to carry the baton I was overwhelmed at the number of friends and family who came out to support me. I was under strict orders to ‘take my time and enjoy every minute!’ which is exactly what I did. As I walked along Duke Street in Leith I took in the smiles and waves of everyone around me. I took a deep breath and remembered why I was nominated to be there. It was an incredible experience which I got to share with so many special people. Even my Nan got to watch it live in Wales!

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Best Day!

It is hard to believe that following such a traumatic Friday I could have a Saturday which I will treasure for the rest of my life. I can’t quite believe the difference in a day: Friday was spent lying still biting my lip through the pain followed by Saturday carrying the baton giving a proper FU to Cancer! To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. I was on cloud 9! Carrying the baton was always going to be an honour but for me it was more than that. Carrying the baton was a reminder of all the fantastic things I have achieved and I am yet to achieve in my life. Top of my current ‘to do list’ is beat cancer and get married. No biggy! So as I come into the final stretch of my marathon I already feel like a winner surrounded by my Army of supporters on the sidelines. Thank you to everyone for being there! You have no idea what it means to me.

#FUCancer – four days left of treatment to go!

A little and a lot!

It is officially four weeks on since I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. A lot and a little has happened in a relatively short timeframe: I have had a PET scan, a CT scan, two further planning meetings and three new tattoos. Treatment begins a week today which will be combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The most common question in response to that is ‘what about your hair?’ and I am relieved to say that my golden-locks are safe (otherwise I would be raging having spent a fortune getting my roots done!) Anyone who has ever been through this will no doubt agree that when you get a diagnosis you want treatment to begin yesterday. Waiting is frustrating. Every bodily function, every pain, every niggle you automatically think ‘It’s the cancer!’ Even the funny boy had to laugh when I claimed my hiccups were related to cancer. The prospect of treatment doesn’t scare me – don’t get me wrong; the idea of feeling nauseous, enduring sunburn and various other side affects doesn’t sound like the best fun. Saying goodbye to the prospect of motherhood has definitely been a grieving process for me. So yes, with regards to starting treatment a little has happened however I am ready to tackle this head on. I am young, fit, strong and I have an army of people supporting me!

My army of family and friends have been amazing. I have been flooded with supportive messages, inspiring words, thoughtful gifts – I love my FUC bear (http://designer-j.co.uk/). Old friends, new friends, friends of friends all going out of their way to say something. I appreciate how difficult it can be for some people. You don’t want to say the wrong thing but you don’t want to say nothing either. As I said previously this is a marathon and it is great to know you have people at the finishing line but it is even better knowing they are running it with you! My family and the funny boy have been particularly outstanding…

My mum is now known as Alma ‘Iceberg’ Williams. For those of who you have met my pocket sized mother you will understand what I mean when I say she is petite. To look at you probably wouldn’t back her in a fight, but you would be wrong! She may look small but she has the strength and power to take down the Titanic! Out of everyone she was the person I was most nervous about telling. I assumed she would cry and ask ‘why’ – I was wrong. She has helped me with every emotion and supported me through every step of the marathon so far.

Then, there is my Dad. He is a classic Dad. When it comes to ‘lady-things’ he doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t understand womens’ bits and nor does he want to. Who could blame him?! I can only imagine being told your daughter, your only daughter, has cancer is a parent’s worst nightmare. Top that by it being cervical cancer and a whole host of awkward conversations then it is definately a dad’s worst nightmare. Yet, my dad has amazed me! He has attended every appointment, listened to every consequence of treatment and held my hand through it all. My dad already had the nickname ‘Buggernuts’ – it doesn’t seem appropriate to rename him Amazeballs but that is what he is! Amazeballs!

The siblings (Owain, Gags & Angela) and the nephews (Conor and Ryan aka Ryno (apologies Ryan you will hate that name one day)) are top pacemakers too! Each showing their support in their own way. My nephews have prepared a superb pack of FU Cancer treats which are in my bag all set for next week. Angela has been an ear for me to rant and rave when needs to be. Owain and Gareth are the same which is exactly what I need them to be. They approve of the funny boy which is a major bonus too!

And then there is the funny boy! There aren’t enough words to describe him. Maybe I should keep it simple and rename him my fiancee!

Yeah, so a little and a lot has happened in the past four weeks! Treatment is still waiting to start but I am no longer free agent! After a very romantic and personalised proposal (in true funny boy fashion) I said yes! Exactly four weeks to the day and time I was getting my diagnosis I was sat in a jewellers picking my engagement ring! I am beyond elated. Marathons have their ups and downs and today is definately a high! Looks like I have a training partner for life now. Lucky, lucky me!

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The Marathon I didn’t sign up for

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Today signals the start of a marathon which I will conquer, a marathon I never signed up for.

2013 was a great year for me. I was settling into life in Edinburgh, work was a passion where I met loads of inspiring people and I had made a whole new crew of friends. In addition to this I set a target of running my first marathon in Loch Ness. I loved the months of training especially in the Summer Sun. I found myself running on the sandy beaches of Fuertaventura, the down town streets of Toronto and, more often than not, the promenade at Crammond. The feeling on race day was electric! I was terrified but confident. Being a self confessed control freak I had created a rigorous training plan and diet which I was committed to. I knew I deserved to conquer my goal – I knew I could run a marathon, I just had to prove it. I found the experience of running exhilarating. I was surrounded by hundreds of other runners of different ages, sizes, runners with their own motivation, their own agenda. I would often find myself reading other runners vest which told of fundraising stories, people touched by disease or battling a cancer. I chose to raise funds for the Craig Gowans Memorial Fund in partnership with the Sick Kids Friends Foundation. I chose this because of a close friend at the time and many of the children I work with are involved with Sick Kids. The support of family and friends helped me raise over £1000. I was overwhelmed that my small efforts could raise an impressive amount for such a worthwhile cause. Upon completing the marathon, in an annoying 4 hours 17 minutes , I knew I had to do it again if not only to get a sub 4 hour time. The whole experience of setting a goal, working towards it and smashing it was so rewarding: it is genuinely one of the best feelings I have ever had. In the the following months I allowed myself some time to calm down from the training. (In addition to training for hockey and coaching boccia I spent the majority of my free time running) I dubbed the month of October ‘Yestember’ where I had to say yes to any social opportunity that came my way. Not so surprisingly this included a lot of drunken nights. On one occasion I met a very funny boy. This funny boy asked me on a date and despite saying no initially I remembered it was Yestember. We shared our first night of giggles over Beverly janes which is something we hev repeated over the past 6 months. So, yes 2013 was a great year for me. Loving life in Edinburgh, smashed a marathon and I met a funny boy who I am proud to say is now my funny boyfriend.

We are now in the fourth month of 2014 and it is safe to say that this year is proving to be a bit more challenging. Saying goodbye to my gran, realising who my true friends are and then there is that dark day in April. On Tuesday 8th April I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. An appointment which lasted less than an hour turned life as I know it upside down. I am currently on route to the hospital for my planning meeting which will decide my treatment. A meeting which will impact the following months with a strong goal at the end: beat cancer! There are a lot of similarities between cancer and a marathon…

– You can’t prepare yourself for it overnight
– It will take time and you have to take the ups with the downs
– You’ll discover you are much stronger than you imagined
– You’ll be overwhelmed by the people who are there to support you, to love you and help you conquer your goal.

So, did I sign up for it? No but I LOVE a challenge. What’s more I LOVE my life and everyone in it. Just like the marathon, I will beat cancer.

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