Our latest Pieces of the Continent interviewee is Sarah Richardson an anal cancer survivor. She talked us through her experience.
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself
Hi, I’m Sarah, a 48 year old mum of three, a wife, a teacher and an anal cancer survivor.
Q. What is your story of being diagnosed?
On 29th March 2018, I joined the club no-one wants to be a member of. After being admitted to A&E with what was thought to be a perianal abscess, I was discharged with a malignant tumour! Total, utter shock especially as I’d been feeling well and living life as normal. The only symptom I now realise I had, was a haemorrhoid. Six months prior I had been traveling back and forth to my GP using various creams, suppositories, sitz baths and googling to reassure myself it was nothing other than a haemorrhoid. Google never flagged up anal cancer so it was never on my radar. Anyway, turns out that the haemorrhoid was actually a polyp growing from a 4 cm anal tumour.
Q. How did you feel after you got your diagnosis?
The weeks that preceded were torturous. Blood tests, MRI, CT and PET scans, waiting anxiously for results all whilst trying to process the bombshell and carry on with day to day life. This was a dark time. Thoughts about my life being cut short and my children being left motherless haunted me.
Each scan followed more information and subsequently, more anxiety. I was also in limbo, waiting to be referred to Guys Hospital, London with no-one to answer my questions. I spent a lot of time internet researching and realised quite quickly that due to the rarity of this cancer it would be hard to connect with others. I came across ‘The HPV & Anal Cancer Foundation’ and joined their peer to peer programme. I was paired with a lovely lady who’d survived anal cancer eight years prior. I also joined the MacMillan Online Community and connected with other anal cancer patients. Both resources have and continue to provide me with invaluable advise and support.
Q. When did you start treatment and what was it like?
In April 2018, I finally met my oncologist and things began to gain pace. I was given my staging T4 N3 M0 (stage 3b) another big shock as I hadn’t realised my cancer was so advanced with possible spread to my pelvic lymph nodes. Strangely however, once I had the facts about my staging and treatment plan I felt calmer and just wanted to get on with things.
In May 2018, I embarked on 5.5 weeks, daily radiotherapy and chemotherapy. I was scared but determined to get through the treatment and deal with whatever would be thrown at me.
The treatment was grueling, particularly towards the end, but with the support of family, friends, work colleagues and the amazing NHS staff, I got through it. The treatment can only be described as short and very sharp. However, it quickly becomes a distant memory and I consider myself to be lucky as other cancer patients have to endure months, sometimes years of treatment.
Q. What was life like for you post-treatment?
Following treatment, I began recovery at home which for the first couple of weeks was frankly, horrible as the side effects peaked. Again, I found my way through and was amazed how quickly my body began to heal. Luckily my recovery coincided with the school summer holidays and once some of the harsher side effects had subsided, I was able to enjoy some normality again. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to do mundane chores like filling the dishwasher, hanging out the washing, putting out the bins. My husband was particularly happy!
6 weeks post treatment I was at a theme park riding the roller coasters with my kids (not recommended as I could hardly walk the next day!) 10 weeks after treatment I flew to Portugal for a family holiday. My family and I had a wonderful summer. I felt great, no longer in pain and most days I didn’t think about my cancer and almost forgot I had it.
I had my post-treatment scans in Sept 2018 which revealed that the tumour had gone, I’d had a total response to treatment. Essentially, I received the best news I could have hoped for. Of course I was over joyed and hugely relieved but it took a while for the news to sink in and for me to believe it.
Since then I’ve had two check-ups, both of which have been clear. I will continue to have 3 monthly check-ups and annual scans for the next 5 years. Only then will I be pronounced as cured.
Q. If you are in remission, how does it feel?
I am an anal cancer survivor living in remission. I feel blessed and grateful however, remission can be a hard place to be. It’s another chapter in the cancer journey that I sometimes find physiologically challenging. Processing what has happened and coping with my uncertain future can manifest in worry and anxiety. Over time, I know these thoughts and feelings will become less prominent and I am being pro-active about self-care to support my mental well being. Exercise is key and every week I run and practise yoga. I continue to talk to anal cancer patients online to hear their experiences and provide support. I’m doing more of what I enjoy and when the dark thoughts arise, I allow them to come and go because this is now my new normal and something I will have to learn to live with.
Q. Is there anything you’d like to add?
At the start of 2019 people said to me “I bet your glad that year’s over”, “you can forget about 2018 and start afresh”. I don’t view the last year as the worst of my life and I certainly won’t forget it. Throughout this whole experience I’ve learnt a lot about cancer. My eyes have been opened and I have a much better understanding of the disease. I’ve seen how cancer doesn’t discriminate. People of any age, sex, gender or background can get the disease. I’ve learnt there are many different types of chemo and reactions to the drugs differ from one person to the next. I’ve realised that having chemo doesn't mean you’ll lose your hair or look ill. In fact, most cancer patients look perfectly well and healthy. Most importantly, I’ve learnt that cancer is not a death sentence. With treatment continually evolving and advancing, people can be cured or live full lives along side the disease. Cancer is now viewed as life changing, rather than life threatening.
So going forward my aim is to carry on living and enjoying my life but to raise awareness about anal cancer and use my experience to help other cancer patients. I hope to work with the Foundation to support others.