Science Conference – “I was told seven years ago that I was only a month old” – Karen’s story about living well with cancer

Karen is living well with cancer thanks to a combination therapy.

The diagnosis of bowel cancer was horrible. It happened in 2015 – I went to the hospital via A&E and had an emergency operation to remove what I thought was an abscess in my appendix. I woke up saying that a mass had been removed from my large colon and even though nothing was confirmed at that stage, I felt like I knew I had cancer.

Soon after, I started chemotherapy, and it didn’t work and after five cycles, I was told that the cancer had spread more to the peritoneum and liver. At this point, my oncologist told me that I was no longer curable, that I was no longer operative, and that my illness was terminal. He started talking about palliative chemotherapy, and said that if this didn’t work, I would be six or nine months old, but even so, I didn’t expect to live beyond a year.

The news crushed me. I didn’t want to get out of bed, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was in a kind of surreal world. I remember studying winter clothes and donating them to charity shops. I shouldn’t need any more.

Second opinion

One of my very good friends gave me a hard and good talk. “You don’t have to accept this prognosis,” he said. “This is not you, you are not passive; challenge yourself and get a second opinion.” And with the help of counseling, I did just that.

I got a new oncologist and continued treatment with FOLFIRI, a combination of chemotherapy, and Cetuximab, a targeted drug. Very quickly, my tumor marks shrank, and my pain disappeared. My scan results showed a steady reduction in all tumors, and I began to gain mental and physical strength.

After 18 cycles, I was able to have two major surgeries that I was told I would not get. I follow the same treatment every two weeks and now I have a total of 132 cycles!

It has been the beginning of a new life for me. I’m turning 60 this year and I’m planning a garden party at home to celebrate later this summer with a cocktail bar and saxophone player! After all, it’s a birthday I never thought I’d see in 2016.

My husband, Ross, and three sons have been a great help. Michael is 35, Fraser is 34, and Euan is 30. Thanks to my treatment, my three grandchildren have been here to welcome me into the world: Harry, five, is in school, and Cameron and Marty are three and in kindergarten.

Karen is sitting outside, surrounded by her three grandchildren

With Karen’s grandchildren. Image by John Angerson.

In fact, I delivered Cameron to her home in the bathroom after a quick birth! I became a midwife in 1986 and luckily everything came back to me. I was waiting to take care of my son’s eldest son and I received a call at 4:20 from my son saying he thought the baby was on its way so I would like to come back.

I was so excited. I put on my clothes and walked around, a minute’s journey. My daughter was trying to relax in a nice bubble bath to get my son into the hospital while he was on the phone. I went for a coffee while I waited for them to get ready to go out. listen, ‘MOTHER!’ I made my way to the toilets, which were clearly moving very fast. I appreciated the progress and said in a calmer voice that he needed to push for the next contraction. I told my son to call 999 and told the operator that we were having an unplanned home birth in the bathroom!

Cameron arrived soon and his birth was very quiet and just a textbook. We all dried up and rested on the breast of his pulp while the paramedics arrived in the bath still in the bath. It was a wonderful and incredible experience to be able to bring my grandson into the world and he is the most lovable and supportive little person you can meet.

Living well with cancer

The last few years have brought great joy to my life, and I am so grateful for everything I have experienced here.

Living well with cancer is my reality. I spend most of my time with family; I am very involved and I receive them from school and kindergarten. Three years ago, I got my little dog Poppy, and I enjoy walking with him. I also started swimming in the wild almost four years ago because it makes me feel really good and alive.

Karen has a bright orange tow float on the beach surrounded by her swimming buddiesKaren with her swimming friends. Image by John Angerson.

I am very happy and live a good and almost normal life. Treatment days are every other Wednesday and are generally days to sit and administer at home. It wipes me out and makes me tired, but it never stops me from doing anything I want to do.

Combined treatment

It’s been very important for me to have a positive mindset about the medications I’m taking. Chemotherapy drugs and targeted drugs work together to keep cancer at bay. I go for a regular CT scan every four months and now there is no sign of cancer.

As we move forward with the pandemic, it is time to put the focus back on cancer. I am here today for the work of scientists and researchers. The work I do every day fills me with hope for cancer patients. There are more and more of us who are living well with cancer, and there is a general feeling that there has been a turning point in terms of treatment options.

But we are not there yet. I help moderate a bowel cancer forum in the UK and there are too many people we have lost to this disease. It’s very sad. I know I’m one of the lucky ones because not everyone responds well to targeted drugs. The work of the Institute for Cancer Research is crucial to finding more opportunities and more enjoyable treatments for cancer patients. That is why I accept their Spring Appeal.

Our research is helping patients live longer and live well. But cancer can be shaped and evolved to prevent treatment, so we’re looking for new ways to take a step forward and fight cancer. One way to do this is to use combination treatments. Please help us unblock new research combination therapies to help more people survive cancer.

Let’s end cancer together.

Give it today

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