The Fear Factor

14 August 2017

Jo was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in July 2014, aged 39. She has since undergone a hysterectomy and treatment with chemotherapy and an angiogenesis inhibitor drug with the aim of keeping the cancer managed. Through genetic testing, Jo discovered she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation which presents a higher than normal risk of breast cancer.

As a working mum with two young boys living in Harrogate, she continues to share her experience of diagnosis, going through treatment and living with an incurable cancer for Yorkshire Cancer Research to help raise awareness of ovarian cancer and to help others navigating similar experiences.

In her latest post Jo brings us up to date on the fear of a recurrence and then facing up to undergoing treatment for a second time.

The Fear-Factor

15 months on from the end of active treatment and I was in the enviable position where my cancer was becoming less dominant in my life. I was feeling fit and healthy, well on my way to healing from a major hernia repair last year, and had been back at work almost a year. A few blips in my blood test results had triggered concerns but, on the whole, I was feeling pretty positive and determined to get on with life despite living with cancer. In February we ventured on our first family skiing trip; it proved tiring and eventful, but at the same time rewarding to see the boys get so much pleasure out of it.

March signaled a series of planned hospital appointments – a routine check-up with my oncologist, then annual breast screening (an MRI and mammogram) due to me having the BRCA1 gene mutation, and a follow-up with the breast consultant. I was fairly unfazed by the breast screening element; I’d been through similar a year prior and knew what to expect from the process. It was, therefore, unnerving to be told that the MRI scan had shown something on my left rib which required further investigation to rule out bone metastasis given my history of ovarian cancer. Immediately the power of the cancer surfaced, fuelling anxiety about what it could mean and how long I would have to wait before I knew more. Do I try and remain positive, hoping it was linked to recent trauma to the area (which was muted as a possibility in view of multiple skiing incidents), or do I prepare for the worst-case scenario and Google what it could mean in terms of treatment options and a prognosis? Would this be helpful? I doubted it. I managed to resist Google but then chided myself for being too complacent and feared I was underprepared. Instantly the familiar feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and lack of control came flooding back. I felt the need to press the pause button on life, not daring to think beyond the immediate next step of a scan and getting the results. Following my cancer diagnosis I’m hyper-vigilant about any ailment or anything out of the ordinary; I start to question whether I could trust myself to pick up on things if I hadn’t spotted anything untoward. The children were excitedly chatting about things we might do in the Easter holidays, but I avoided being drawn into anything for fear plans may have to be unraveled, leaving them disappointed. I was fortunate to be able to get a bone scan scheduled five days later due to a cancellation. Once I had a date for the follow-up consultation I was mildly comforted, knowing I had a period of days in which I wouldn’t know the verdict and therefore should try not to worry about it – easier said than done.

On arrival for my scan I was on high alert, looking for any signs from the receptionist and other health professionals to whether they knew my fate. The mention of additional procedures at check-in (in hindsight, I’m guessing they’re routine ahead of a bone scan) threw me off guard and I found myself asking different members of staff the same questions to check for any inconsistencies in what I was being told. Once the radioactive dye had gone where it needed, my turn for a scan arrived. As I laid on the scanner to be told the 3D imaging was about to commence, I tormented myself about whether the radiographer had said they ‘might’ or ‘will’ do some 3D imaging. I concluded it was ‘might’ and instantly took it as a sign they’d found something concerning. Scan done, I tried to contain the fear until my follow-up consultation.

On the morning of my appointment I felt physically sick. I sat in the waiting room with my husband, flicking through magazines, unable to focus on the words. On greeting my consultant, he sensed my anxiety and reassured me, “I’m smiling”; I took that as a good sign but wanted to hear detail. As it turned out, the area of concern on my initial scan was two broken ribs from a ski collision; I can’t imagine news of broken bones is good news for many people but it certainly was for me! I know plenty of people won’t be so lucky when receiving test results but the intensity of emotions triggered by my abnormal scan demonstrated what a hold cancer has over those of us living with cancer. On this occasion I could breathe a big sigh of relief, but it goes to show just how quickly the cancer clouds can come rolling back in, threatening to turn the world upside down.

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