Life on the outside

I’ve made it out!!! After two and half weeks, I’ve left hospital.

It should have been a wonderful moment.

After intensive care, the only thing I was focused on was getting well enough to escape. My plan has always been to get through this cancer treatment as quickly as possible.

But I was very tired and just a little bit scared.

Being stuck inside hospital felt as if I was in some kind of ghost like prison. Most of my fellow inmates wore identical white hospital gowns and we all moved so slowly.

At night we shared each other’s pain. With bleeps and screams and emergency visits from doctors.

Early the next morning the nurses would wake us. They would tell us that it was going to be a lovely day. Inwardly we’d all sigh. It was going to be another day stuck on the ward staring at a bright blue sky.

I don’t think it helped that the building was right next to a jail.

I thought that once I left hospital, everything would be back to normal. But I wasn’t ready for normal and it came as quite a shock.

It was the first time since the day of the operation that I’d properly been outside. Just walking the short distance to the car, it seemed like everyone around me was in such a rush.

A week on from getting out of hospital I’m still totally and utterly exhausted.

My days go something like this. Breakfast, then sleep. Shower, sleep. Lunch, sleep. And so on.

But I do have glimpses of ordinary life.

It’s amazing to go into the garden and actually feel that sun on my skin after being trapped inside for so long.

In these brief moments, I feel well. Really well.

These glimpses are getting longer. And I can’t wait for them all to join up so I can have a whole day out of bed.

I choose life …

When I came into hospital I thought I had already made that big decision. Do I want to do whatever it takes to save my life? My answer was yes. Of course. What I didn’t realise was that I would have to make that choice again.

On the day of my operation, I wasn’t supposed to be first on the list for surgery but someone else was late. With a pink dressing gown over my NHS hospital gown I rushed to the end of the ward to join some of my medical team.We walked briskly to the operating theatre along a confusing set of corridors. Early morning light streamed through square 1950’s style windows across sage green floor tiles.

As we chatted, I glanced out at the hospital grounds. It didn’t occur to me that this would be the last time I would be able to walk for a more than a week.

The adrenalin rush reminded me of work, when as a reporter you’re sent to a breaking story. There’s a buzz of not quite knowing what’s next. Plus I was feeling excited to be finally, hopefully, getting rid of the cancer.

The op, I was told, would be several hours long. Maybe five hours at the most. So I was prepared for it to be awful. My team were looking for the pea while this princess was well asleep. Sadly they found a whole lot more than just a tiny tumour. They discovered some of his bigger and nastier friends plus plenty of his little mates too. So much for the pea theory. As it was such a big op I was in theatre for pretty much the whole day.

But (and how I like these buts), they got it all out. The surgery was a success thanks to my brilliant team (and I’m not just saying that because I know some of them are reading my blog!). All the cancer has now been removed.

Amazing news. But physically I felt awful. That night was bad and the next day not much better. The pain was harsh but all that mattered was that they’d got the cancer and mum was at my bedside. Now surely the worst was over.

That morning I was given a load of painkillers and easily dozed off. This was a dangerous sleep that I was drifting into.

At some point I started to dream about a group of people. I could hear their voices in the distance. It was like they were in another room. Slowly I began to work out what they were saying. It took a while to realise that this group of people were actually talking to me.

“Can you hear us Helen?” They seemed to ask.

Yes of course I can hear you all, I thought to myself and ignored them.

“Helen, open your eyes.”

I was totally unaware that anything was wrong. I just felt relaxed and happy in a bubble of unconsciousness.

There was also a male automated voice. It was saying something like, if the patient doesn’t respond, start CPR. The computerised voice sounded angry. I couldn’t understand why I was hearing this. Or what the fuss was about. On and on all the voices kept talking to me.

So I opened my eyes.

And in doing so, I chose to live.

It turned out that I had stopped breathing because of a bad reaction to the painkillers. Apparently my body started convulsing and the emergency crash team was called.

That’s how I ended up in intensive care.

I was hooked up to a bank of machines. These computers didn’t talk. Instead they bleeped. Now I was petrified of both sleeping and the monitors.

I was told that the drugs which had caused me to become unconscious would take a while to leave my body. Every time a sound went off I thought I had stopped breathing.

Almost delirious from exhaustion, that night I was haunted by hallucination-like dreams during the scraps of sleep I managed to get. Every five minutes that passed felt like two hours.

My bed faced away from the windows. It was hard to tell what time of day it was. Intensive care  was a bright white environment with large fluorescent lights in the ceiling. I knew it was eventually morning when there was a shift change.

It was the worst night of the my life. But it was over.

Despite feeling incredibly ill, I was determined that now my recovery would start.

It was tough. I could hardly move, small things like a nurse washing my face would leave me shattered and I found it difficult to focus my eyes on anything for long.

Ever so slowly and painfully I improved until that amazing moment when I was considered well enough for the toast.

Finally, a week after the op I was allowed to leave intensive care.

As my bed was pushed towards a normal ward it felt like we we were doing a victory lap of the hospital. When we came to the corridor with the square 1950s windows full of light, I was so happy that I cried.

Everyday since then I’ve been gradually getting better. It’s taken a long time but finally I feel like me again.

I’m an optimistic person anyway, but after the past couple of weeks I appreciate even more than ever just how precious life is.

Finally … toast-op

Hooray! This is the wonderful white bread moment that I was waiting for.

My post-op toast.

I actually had this several days ago but it’s only now I feel well enough to be able to write about it.

I was so very ill following the cancer surgery last week that I was nil by mouth for the best part of a week. The only thing I was given was the occasional ice cube to suck on. I graduated to a few teaspoons of water. Woah, easy there!

On the big day, I was given a mug of tea and I felt like I could conquer the world. Then that evening, along with more pale tea, it arrived. I got two slices of hot toast with butter and raspberry jam.

Total bliss.

Just tasting real food after so long was incredible. And quite weird too. It was almost like I’d never eaten something with so much intense flavour. I was only able to manage one piece of toast.

It was amazing, yes. Better than I thought it would be. It was something that made me very happy.

But there was problem with my first proper meal – I was eating it while in intensive care.

Something went very very wrong after surgery.  I will write about this properly in the coming days. Lets just say it was horrendous but I’m fine now. Well, as good as you can be after major surgery.

That’s why I didn’t want to celebrate my hospital toast-op until I truly felt like I was recovering. Now finally I do. I’m confident that I’m over the worst.

I also hope that I’ll never ever have to taste that toast again.

Looking forward to toast-op

It’s hard to write as I’m so hungry. Today it’s been liquids only to prepare for the big operation. Well I have been allowed to eat jelly and ice lollies. So like I said I’m starving.

I actually had one of the best meals of my life in hospital so I’m not too worried about the food.

But I’m scared about the surgery. I have a great team of people. The consultants and surgeons are brilliant and I feel very confident that they will take good care of me.

Operations are not without risk so what happens if something goes wrong?

You see last time there was a problem. As I came round from the op I could open my eyes but I felt dizzy. I could barely talk and it was hard to breathe.

The next day my bed was wheeled into the intensive care part of the ward. Even with an oxygen mask, I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. It was as if I was being smothered.

No one could work out what was wrong with me post-op. Over the next couple of days I got worse. Slowly I could feel my life slipping away.

Finally I was given a blood transfusion through the night and I started to get better. The next morning I was well enough to have breakfast. Toasted white bread never tasted so good.

There’s just hours to go before I have to be on the ward. The surgery will take place not long after I arrive.

I now can’t wait for my next hospital breakfast as it will mean that everything has gone well.

Lost for words

It has to be one of the hardest things.

Your life has been turned upside down and you’re worried you might die. Then you have to tell the people you love that you have cancer.

The first time I was diagnosed it was a few days before Christmas. I decided not to tell anyone straightaway apart from a handful of people. I just couldn’t cope with all those conversations. Besides I didn’t want it to be the Christmas that cancer ruined.

Second time round it’s been slightly easier. It’s taken a while for the possibility that the pea might be filled with cancer to turn into a reality. This has meant that I’ve been able to come to terms with it gradually.

Even so, I still find it difficult every time I tell someone. And I’ve been doing a lot of that lately.

I haven’t had any really bad experiences unlike my friend, the flower girl. She’s one of a group of cancer survivors that I’ve known for years. We meet up regularly and celebrate still being alive.

It was Valentine’s Day when the flower girl told her useless ex-boyfriend that she had the disease. His reply, ”thanks for ruining my day.” That has to be one of the worst reactions.

Most people though are just so stunned by the news that they’re not sure how to respond. A few friends have suggested that I write about this as they were stuck for words.

So if someone reveals to you that they have cancer, what should you say?

To be honest for me, it really doesn’t matter that much. Just say something. Anything.

All I’d really like is for you to acknowledge that it’s a terrible situation. Be positive but not too optimistic. We don’t know how this will end.

I know you might be in shock but I need you to be strong so please try not to cry. Or at least, please don’t cry too much.

After all that a hug would be lovely. I’m sure we’d probably both need one.

I’m glad to say that I’ve been getting plenty of hugs. My friends, family and work colleagues have said it will be hard but I will beat it and they have held back the tears, well mostly. For this, thank you.

Something totally unexpected and amazing has also happened.

After starting this blog, I’ve had so much love and support here, on twitter and elsewhere. I really appreciate all the messages. It’s helped me to stay positive and has been overwhelming.

Now I’m the one who’s lost for words.

Meet my cancer

It won’t be around for long so I really should introduce you. In three days time I will go into hospital. Then my cancer should be gone forever.

For something that’s so scary, you’d think it would be absolutely massive. But no, the tumour is tiny. It’s about the size of a pea. When I start to worry I remind myself how small it is.

This is very different to last time.

Back then it was a scan that first picked up the possibility that something was seriously wrong. I watched as a nurse carried out the examination. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to look at the screen of her monitor but I could and I did. It was a confusing blur of colours.

Through a shifting sea of greens and yellows, I could make out two big lumps of blue. One was slightly larger than the other.

Later I found out exactly how big they were. I changed their colour to orange and imagined them as fruit.

Not long after I first became a journalist I worked on a heart-breaking story about a little boy who had a tumour the size of a small melon. Compared to that, my own orange and tangerine didn’t seem too bad.

Now I have just one pea, how dangerous can that be?

Apparently it’s not just about size. It also matters how fast it can grow. What I have is an aggressive form of cancer.

My consultants say that it’s stage three. There are only four stages.

But and this is the crucial bit, it’s been caught early.

The fact I had the disease once and beat it counts in my favour. I go to the gym lots and play netball for the BBC team so I’m pretty fit. Also I’m young and healthy, aside from the cancer, obviously.

All this means that I have a good chance of winning and that’s what I’m focusing on.

Second time unlucky

These are the words I never ever wanted to write – I have cancer AGAIN.

I can’t believe that I’m going through this once more.

A decade after being diagnosed with the disease, almost to the day, I had some terrible pain. Fast forward two months and I’ve been told that I have ovarian cancer.

So what are my chances of survival? Well let’s flip a coin. I only have a 50-50 chance of being successfully treated.

Those are not great odds. But they are only odds.

Last weekend I went to the horse races with a group of friends. One of the girls had been to a charity auction and accidentally ended up sponsoring the 3.20 at Towcester.

Anyway, I put on an accumulator bet. I looked at the twitter tippers and backed the favourite in each race. The first four won but last two were so bad that I think they’re still running. So much for relying on good odds.

I’m positive that I’ll beat the cancer. And my consultants are too. So let’s just ignore the stats.

Besides I’ve already done it before. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with cancer when a scan revealed that I had two tumours. Lots of horrible treatment later and I was cured.

The whole experience was horrific but it made me realise that I wanted to live my second chance at life to the full.

I came up with a list of some exciting things that I would love to do. I soon moved abroad and ended up becoming a BBC foreign correspondent, living in some strange places and going to dangerous parts of the world. This was the opposite of a bucket list.

When I returned to Britain a couple of years ago I was confident I was free of the disease. So I decided to write a book about surviving cancer and how the experience changed my life for the better.

The same week that I finally finished the book, I started having tests. The irony of the timing isn’t lost on me.

I’m launching this blog now as there are just a few days to go before my treatment begins. It’s also the start of ovarian cancer awareness month.

More cruel irony.

There will now be half a year of hell. A big operation and then weekly chemotherapy. Don’t worry there won’t be anything squeamish. Or any jargon. This will be my place to escape from the medical world.

So why am I doing this blog?

I found that writing helped me to make sense of what I’d been though before. Plus this is a way of sharing what’s happening with my friends. But if you’re reading this and we’ve never met, then hey welcome along.