When she was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer last year, Chloe Jackson wasn't sure what to expect. Here she explains how she coped, and what she learned...
My husband calls me Pea. A cute nickname. But it’s actually Pea by name, pee by nature - a long-running joke stemming from my constant need to go to the loo, whether it’s several stops on a drive up North or always having to find a hidden spot on a country walk. We laughed about it, yet the rather unfunny thing was that it was probably a symptom of the sinister mass growing inside of me for who-knew-how-long.
Cancer always felt like it was dark door down a long corridor that you never wanted to open. You try to forget the reminders on TV adverts or the sad news of friends relatives. I worried for my parents, aunts, uncles, but not for myself or my generation. I was healthy and active. And yet there I was, unwittingly harbouring a cancerous tumour.
My story began with missed periods. At first there was the possible excitement of pregnancy, but when that was quickly put to rest I knew something just wasn’t right. So many of my friends said things like “ Oh, I didn’t have a period for a year after coming off the pill” or “My friend had that – it’s just your body getting it out of your system”. Not true.
It was a rocky road to my diagnosis. Ups and downs, the “it’s nothing” to “it’s something”, to “actually it’s something pretty bad”. My first ultrasound showed what one doctor thought to be ‘just a cyst’. And everyone knows someone who’s had one of those little b*ggers lasered off, right? But hang on, mine was big. Really big. Like 15cm big. Another doctor, thank God, wanted an MRI scan to see more.
Always one to fear the absolute worst, I remember texting my sister: “What if it’s ovarian cancer?” thinking it was slightly ridiculous to jump to this bonkers conclusion, particularly when the doctors implied this was unlikely. She did the Googling (I wasn’t allowed and still to this day never have). The stats on a screen grab were sent straight back in a reply: “ ‘95% of ovarian cancer cases are in post-menopausal women over the age of 65’. So stop worrying lil sis.” Phew, okay.
My next clinic was just meant to be a chat about how best to remove the ‘cyst’, most likely to be day surgery. However the two-hour wait for the appointment panicked me. (Turns out they were waiting for a doctor from St Thomas’). When a nurse was also called in to sit with me I knew something was really wrong.
Then came the moment when it felt like every cell in my body turned to dust and fell to the ground. “We think this is cancer. I’m so sorry.” Friday 29th May 2015, the worst day of my life.
When you are told you may have cancer your world narrows. Nothing matters. You feel deadly still, as the world buzzes manically and unimportantly around you. You feel like no one understands. You contemplate death when you never expected to have to do so. I felt like I’d been left out at sea. You feel very alone and, quite frankly, terrified.
Work was called, holidays cancelled, weddings backed out of… That was it for me, in my eyes. It felt like my life was over. I had to wait two weeks for a major operation to remove the tumour and ovary, sample lymph nodes, remove my omentum (part of the stomach we don’t really need), and spend five days in hospital. All without knowing much at all about Ovarian Cancer – except that this was very rare in someone my age. I just wanted this thing out of me, fast.
I kept a diary through my diagnosis. About this time I wrote “Scared. Scared. Scared. I don’t want to keep upsetting my friends and family. I don’t want my husband to be a widower in his 30s. I don’t want to have chemo and lose my hair. I don’t want my parents to feel the sadness of having a daughter with cancer.”
The actual surgery and hospital stay was not the hardest part. You finally felt you were doing something proactive about the situation: this mass was coming out. Good riddance. The consultant managed to keep it to just the one neat cut from just above my belly button, all the way down (hurrah!). Upon coming round, he said he saw no spread within me. Right, time to get the hell better, then.
One more obstacle, two weeks later, July 1st, D day. The day of the results from the biopsies. It was the hottest day of the year and I had to sit in a car in agony and drive into central London (a laparotomy is pretty painful for a long while after – it turns out you use your core muscles for EVERYTHING.)
There was still a chance the tumour was benign but sadly our worst fears were confirmed. It was definitely cancer. The good news was, it hadn’t spread and I didn’t need chemo. But I was still more devastated than I imagined. The outlook seemed particularly gloomy at this point; a hysterectomy within five years and scans every three months for life, as this cancer can come back anywhere at any time. I phoned my mum (of course) and sobbed. A life of fear and worry… how could I do it?
This was the hardest part. Picking myself up when I wanted to curl up in a ball on my bed and disappear (I couldn’t even curl up to cry as the pain from the operation wouldn’t allow it.)
But I did pick myself up. And I’m here. And slowly everything got better.
My diagnosis now, seven months later, is not so scary. I’ve had clear scans so far and they hopefully won’t need to operate again unless it comes back – and the chance of that is quite small. I’m feeling a lot more positive and life’s back to the ‘new normal’.
There are some benefits to such life changing situations. You realise what is really important. I learned that my job, as a Fashion Editor of a busy weekly magazine, as much as I love it, is not worth the worry and anxiety I used to bestow upon myself. All those so-very-important meetings still happened without me and no empty pages went to press. I learned that health is the most important thing in life, but you can’t always appreciate it until it is compromised. I learned that family is everything. They keep you going, keep you protected and are a constant source of positivity, love and strength. According to my family, I was always going to be alright. That was that. It also turns out I married the kindest, strongest man on earth. I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect to be putting my socks on my feet and giving me daily injections in my derriere in our first year of marriage, but it turns out they really are there in sickness and in health.
I had a lot of time (12 weeks in fact) to sit and think about what I wanted in life after all this. I wanted less stress and to spend more time doing things I love. So I have made sure this has happened. I’m booking holidays left, right and centre, I’m fit enough to horse ride again (good for the soul!). We moved to the countryside a few months ago, something I had been craving for a while. A house we lost out on just before I was diagnosed came back on the market as I was getting better. Serendipity, some said.
I’m taking time over things. Going out only when I want to, being at home when I want to. Getting fitter and healthier. Living for the moment. Trying not to stress about whether I will be able to have children or the cancer will return. I am valuing so much more in life, complaining less, and generally feeling a lot calmer.
I do feel different now, and I think I always will. I can’t quite be the girl that dances on the tables till 3am (hang on, was I ever?!) But it’s no bad thing. I am 37 years old, surely time to grow out of that anyway…
All those slightly annoying inspirational quotes on social media became a strange source of strength through all this. One stuck in my mind more than any other: “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can”. Frida Kahlo. And how right she was. Cancer is terrifying, but we can get through it.
Chloe is raising funds for Ovarian Cancer Action by taking part in a three hour boxathon as part of the Box2Beat Campaign. You can sponsor her at justgiving/chloejanejackson