By Karen Wells
April is Esophageal Cancer Month, and in this blog post, Karen Wells shares her story of being diagnosed and treated for esophageal cancer. According to the American Association for Cancer Research, of the estimated 18,440 Americans living with esophageal cancer, 16,170 died of the disease in 2020, making it one of the deadliest forms of cancer.
I remember the exact day, the exact moment when I knew I had cancer. It was 4:45 PM on Monday, October 8, 2018. I don’t remember much of the conversation with the doctor, but I remember the words he was saying didn’t sound as routine as I had imagined, or even positive for that matter, and I knew he was building up to telling me something.
Completely convinced that cancer wasn’t going to happen to me, I remember interrupting him and saying something like “Are you trying to tell me I have cancer?” I expected him immediately to say “Oh no… of course not.” But he didn’t. He paused, looked at me, and looked at my daughter, who was sitting by my side, and then simply said “Yes.”
As I looked around the room for someone to say the actual response I expected to my question, I saw the clock on the wall – 4:45 PM.
Up until that moment I had been leading what I thought was a pretty regular life. I was 53 years old, living with my partner, Mark, and two grown daughters in a lovely little village on the south coast of England and working in a challenging and demanding career I loved.
In the summer months leading up to my diagnosis, my job was becoming particularly stressful, so when I began experiencing symptoms similar to heartburn and indigestion, I thought it was linked to the pressures of my career. It was only after a couple of weeks when the symptoms didn’t go away that I went to see my GP.
Prescription medication still didn’t help, and as I had never reported problems with heartburn or indigestion, he referred me for an endoscopy. I received confirmation of my appointment in August 2018 for 4 PM on Monday, October 8, 2018.
It’s still a blur as to how the doctor told me that I had cancer of the esophagus, but as I held my sobbing daughter in my arms and began repeating to her that everything was going to be OK, I remember thinking I’d never even heard of esophageal cancer. As I thought of ways to research it on the internet, I recall the doctor seemingly reading my mind and advising against doing so.
Before we had reached the hospital carpark, I had read enough from the internet to understand that my world had not only changed forever, but this cancer I had not heard of 15 minutes earlier was one of the most aggressive and life limiting.
In the following four weeks, I had further tests and scans to establish exactly how aggressive the tumour was and what my options, my chances, were. The tumour had grown inside my esophagus and, unlike what many others experience, had not spread to the walls or lymph nodes beyond. This gave me my chance.
Over the following three months, I had an intensive course of weekly chemotherapy and daily radiotherapy to halt the tumour’s growth and then shrink its size. Then following a period of rest to recover for the operation, I underwent robotic keyhole surgery on March 15, 2019.
The operation is known as Ivor Lewis surgery and it is one of the most specialized procedures undertaken. It involves the removal of part of the esophagus and stretching the stomach to form a new esophageal tube.
My prompt diagnosis, the treatment, and major surgery saved my life and gave me the second chance not available to many others with this type of cancer. In the two years since the operation, I have become stronger each month and have a quality of life that I thought impossible.
Of course, things are not the same nor will they ever be, but I have learned how to manage my diet so as to not cause any side effects related to my condition. The range of foods I can eat is pretty much back to normal, although as I now only have a little stomach, I need to watch how much I eat and the pace at which I eat it.
As much as I loved my career, I worked too many hours trying to do too much. I promised my family that if I got through this health crisis, I would spend more time with them and take more time for myself. I’ve kept my promise: I started my own business consultancy company 12 months after surgery and make sure I work reasonable hours, taking time to go for walks, read books, and listen to music.
Before the COVID pandemic caused disruption across the globe, Mark and I managed to kick start our travel plans and spent a wonderful month relaxing in France, and we continue to make plans to visit all the wonderful places we probably wouldn’t have taken the time to see before this happened. Amazingly, the girls are threatening to come with us!
Karen Wells lives in the village of Delph in northern England. A year after her cancer diagnosis, she launched her our consulting business to help local governments and health sector providers with commissioning, contracting, and creating quality services for local communities. She enjoys walking, cooking, dancing, and driving her classic TVR Tuscan sports car.
Thank you, Karen, for sharing your inspirational story with our readers.
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