Toni’s story

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Without Cavendish, I might have survived physically but not mentally

Primary school teacher, Toni was just 31 when she was diagnosed with a retroperitoneal sarcoma in 2009.

I was sitting in a hospital consulting room with the specialist and a nurse when I first heard the words ‘retroperitoneal sarcoma.’ 

I thought, ‘Great, at least its not cancer.’ 

Then they explained that it was, in fact, a rare form of cancer that grows in the abdomen. 

I remember before they’d told me, the nurse had sensitively turned her badge around so I couldn’t see her job title. Then, once they’d revealed my diagnosis, she turned it back again and I saw the words, ‘Sarcoma specialist.’

I just felt really disappointed in my body 

I’d never smoked, there was no family history of cancer, I went to the gym, ate healthily and I was young. I felt my body had let me down.

Why me? Why now?

Months later I’d still be searching for answers to those questions. I felt I was to blame; that I’d caused this and inflicted it on my family. 

The feeling of loneliness is unreal 

I vividly remember the journey home from the hospital. My fiancé Kurt was with me and my mum, but I was very quiet – it was like my brain and my emotions were very separate

That first evening I felt I just needed to deal with it. When everyone had gone to sleep I felt incredibly lonely. I rang a counselling line at 3am. It was the first source of advice I took, and right then it helped me get through that moment. 

My operation was success, the cancer was removed 

I had major surgery, complicated and traumatic, but it was successful. And fortunately, I didn’t have radiotherapy or chemotherapy. 

I was incredibly lucky to be treated by Professor Malcolm Reed at Sheffield Hallamshire and cared for by Ann French my sarcoma nurse. It wasn’t just their skill, it was their care, calmness and reassurance. 

Professor Reed told me, “You had cancer. It’s been removed. Now you need to think like it’s gone and continue your life.”

My recovery started there. 4 months in a wheelchair followed. I was so lucky to have Kurt, with me. My Mum was doing all she could while dealing with her own emotions and my friends were also brilliant.

Nothing can prepare you for how you feel after your treatment

The weird thing about cancer is when you’re recovering you somehow feel worse. A horrible, confusing mix of guilt, frustration, fear, loneliness and anger.

Looking back you could describe a lot of it as irrational, but that doesn’t matter, it’s how you feel and somehow you have to deal with it.

I was at a low point when I contacted Cavendish

Weeks before my operation I was spending lots of time alone with my own thoughts and I was really struggling. I’d been advised to contact the Cavendish Centre. I wasn’t sure about it but decided to try it.

My first impression of them was that the people were so, so kind. But sitting in my first session I was thinking, “What is talking to somebody going to do? Talking to you isn’t going to take this away and my life isn’t going to go back to how it was before.”

Anna, my assessor, was calm. She said, “You’re right I can’t take it away. So let’s concentrate on what I can do for you.”

That’s what Cavendish are brilliant at. In my weekly sessions we just focused on the things I could change, not what I couldn’t.

And when I felt like I couldn’t cope, Anna said, just take it an hour at a time. Don’t even think as far as this afternoon, or this evening.

I still wasn’t sleeping. Nights were awful.               

I was suffering from insomnia, and things seemed a hundred times worse in the middle of the night.

At my lowest point, I really did think that maybe everyone would be better off without me. I looked at a bottle of pills in my kitchen, and it seemed tempting to take all of them. It was only the devastating thought of Kurt being the one to find me that stopped me. 

I clung onto the thought that at least I had another session with Cavendish coming up, and it helped. Anna said, “Ok, what can we do about you not sleeping?”

The answer was to try some complementary therapy sessions. I wasn’t convinced, I didn’t do that sort of thing. But I tried it. 

First I did Reiki and it was amazing, an almost out of body experience. I was able to take the sensation away with me; it was like I was carrying something positive everywhere I went.

 Then I had aromatherapy sessions. The idea is that the scent links back to the associations you have in the calm, positive setting of the room. As with the Reiki, it meant that where ever I went afterwards- places I felt scared or panicky- I had something to focus on. I had a small bottle of scent that would remind me of how emotionally in control I was in the sessions at Cavendish, and it worked.

Slowly things began to turn around

I began to notice that things were getting better, each day, each week. I joined a support group…I did exercise…went back to the gym.

I wanted to be the person I was before but I learned to realise that I couldn’t be that person. 

Throughout my recovery, my main goal was to get back to work at the primary school I teach in. I’d worked so hard to get where I am, my job is me and I wanted to get on with life. But by talking to people I realised I needed more time. I made sure that when I did go back, I was ready.

I had cancer in my 30s. I feel I’ve lost my innocence…but I’m coming to terms with it

Sometimes I still feel that anything bad could be waiting around the corner. But I’ve also learned to cope. Not to ignore the cancer but use it as a strength. I can draw on the people I’ve met. The specialists, the counsellors, the therapists. 

For anyone who is affected by cancer I’d say take whatever support you’re offered, even if you’re really sceptical, just take it. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But other times, it does. And all the little positives add up. 

Above all, I’d say speak to Cavendish. Go with an open mind. Talk and listen. 

What they tell you stays with you.