Cancer & me 35 years on - Vol 7 - The recovery

Cancer & me 35 years on written in big letters next to a photo of Willo painting surrounded by her art.

Today in our Community News blog we are very pleased to welcome our guest blogger, Willo, back with the seventh instalment of her blog series called ‘Cancer & me 35 years on’. In this series, Willo, known on the Community as patsyann85, tells us about her experience of being diagnosed with Anal cancer in 1986 while living in Zambia. We will be sharing more of Willo’s writing and incredible artwork throughout the next few months in the Community News. If you missed Vol 6 –The Abdominoperineal Resection with Colostomy you can click here to catch up.

Vol 7 - The recovery 

As you may have seen in the last chapter, my abdominoperineal resection was in November 1987 and coming round from the procedure (as everyone who has had major surgery will know) found tubes feeding in or out of every orifice – and even from where there were no natural openings. I was given regular injections and they eased the pain, but I noticed that I felt sick after each jab and I was losing control of my senses (and far from the rather wonderful effect created by the intravenous Valium I had been given previously). I itched all over and thought it might be due to the protective covering over the mattress. For a couple of days it was a pattern of pain, injection, coughing, vomiting (exacerbated by the aspiration tube running down the back of my throat) and semi-consciousness, not necessarily in that order, but always nausea and oblivion following the morphine jab.

'I was given regular injections and they eased the pain, but I noticed that I felt sick after each jab'

It was then time for me to venture out of bed and the nurse came with the injection, which I declined, but she insisted, saying I must – I’d had “half my insides removed and would be in such pain without the drug”. Taking her advice I had the jab and was helped into a chair, but almost immediately the room started spinning and as soon as my bed was made I climbed back in again. Definitely no more! As a result, the sickness eased off and so did the itching. I was allergic to Omnopon!

 'As a result, the sickness eased off and so did the itching. I was allergic to Omnopon!'

Next day when Dorothea came to visit I got up and she helped me wash my hair in the washbasin. The registrar came in unexpectedly and caught us in the act, but he was pleasantly surprised and soon after that I started taking regular exercise along the corridors. My biggest setback was wind, for I hadn’t been told I would no longer have any control over it (I know, it should have been obvious to me) and I’d never been known for farting in public. Now I would let off the most enormous rip-roaring farts at the most inopportune moments! It was terribly distressing and I wished I were dead!

'Next day when Dorothea came to visit I got up and she helped me wash my hair in the washbasin. The registrar came in unexpectedly and caught us in the act, but he was pleasantly surprised and soon after that I started taking regular exercise along the corridors'

My stay in hospital lasted two weeks and needless to say I wasn’t feeling my best, but had made every effort to get myself fit before being admitted. I’d exercised regularly and made a decision to give up red meat (with the exception of the occasional bacon butty and the delicious cooked ham from our local butcher!). I had read that red meat was more carcinogenic than white (at that point I was pretending bacon/ham belonged to the white meat category as I felt I needed the occasional treat (in retrospect a bad decision) and it appeared that some people advocated a vegetarian or even vegan diet, but I didn’t think I could cope with a strict regime. When I was pregnant with my eldest son I was a pescetarian, but apparently became anaemic and had an obstetrician swearing at me and telling me to eat plenty of liver or I was not to expect a blood transfusion from him if my baby or myself needed it. (Ironic that two decades later I should develop anal/bowel cancer!).

Photo of Willo with her mum and dad sitting side by side and all smiling happily into the camera

                                            A memorable evening with Mum & Dad

It was to be the second marriage I had walked away from with no settlement or financial support for my sons or myself, but although I had every intention of enjoying life to the full, I vowed never to get seriously involved with anyone – ever again! My mother was particularly delighted at this news for to her it meant a live-in housekeeper and carer for the rest of her days. My dad wasn’t so thrilled for he didn’t want to think of his little girl, his only child, having nobody to look after her in later years. 

So there I was, living with my elderly parents in their council house, what should I do? I’d been in Zambia for 17 years, living in a sleepy little town on the edge of the African bush and I felt my work was stale and/or effete and in a different world to the conceptual art which was then fashionable in the UK. If I were going to support myself, I would have to buck my ideas up and go back to college to re-educate (it was still in the days of government grants), but where, what, when? Logically it would be best to find an art school within daily travelling distance of my folks (living in a house with young students and shared bathroom could prove difficult with a colostomy), so I needed to see what was on offer. The nearest education office was four miles away, so that would be my first port of call to see if they had any prospectuses. It was January 1988, two months after my op and I decided to walk, not only to save on the bus fare, but also to test my fitness. No point in me enrolling at a college if I wasn’t up to it physically.

'So there I was, living with my elderly parents in their council house, what should I do? I’d been in Zambia for 17 years, living in a sleepy little town on the edge of the African bush'

Willo sits on a bench in London on a summers day looking into a camera with a red flower in her hair. Off I set and it took me an hour, which was just about normal for me, but I didn’t think I could walk home again, so decided on the bus for the return journey. There weren’t any prospectuses at the office, but they let me go through their archive and it soon became apparent that Liverpool Polytechnic was probably my best option, so I applied to do Fine Art and awaited an interview in May. The weeks passed and I did lots of painting and drawing in preparation, worked on a few commissions, caught up with old friends and made some new ones.

My two sons have always been a source of great joy and laughter, incredibly supportive and would never allow me to feel sorry for myself, poking fun at me at every opportunity and referring to me regularly as “the bag lady!” My elder son had just graduated with a combined science degree in maths/chemistry, but had been asked by his dad to go and labour for him on his latest business scheme – a damp-proofing franchise – and for that he would get his board and lodging and payment as and when. I saw very little of him from then on as he was 200 miles away, but my younger son was then at university in the next county and so I saw him quite often and we had some great adventures together.

'My two sons have always been a source of great joy and laughter, incredibly supportive and would never allow me to feel sorry for myself, poking fun at me at every opportunity' 

Drawing by Willo of a house undergoing building work.

We want to thank Willo for kindly sharing her writing and beautiful artwork with us. We will be bringing you the next volume of this series in our Community news blog soon. 

Willo is speaking from her own experience today, but if you have any questions about cancer and diet, do remember you can post in our ‘Ask a nurse session and a member of our Cancer Informaiton nursing team with respond to offer some more information and support.

If you wanted some more information on the risks and causes of Anal cancer, you can click here to read some further information by Cancer Research UK. Cancer Research UK also have lots of information on diet and cancer as well.

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