February 17, 2020
Cressida, 58, has lived in Sheffield since she was a student. She is recently retired, and has two grown-up sons and two dogs.
I was diagnosed with a brain tumour after I retired – before that, I was very healthy and fit. A lot of people with cancer go through a journey of symptoms, then tests, then diagnosis, but my cancer came out of the blue. I went from feeling well, to being confused and disoriented, to being near a coma within 48 hours due to my brain swelling. I came round full of tubes and drains after an emergency craniotomy, and with little idea of what had happened to me. I was told that a mass had been removed from my brain – I didn’t think it would be cancer, because I hadn’t been ill beforehand. But tests showed that the mass was a grade 4 primary brain tumour, the most aggressive and difficult to treat form of brain cancer. It could not be cured. The medical team at the Hallamshire were fantastic, but I went home feeling shocked and unbelieving – to suddenly be so ill felt quite traumatic. The brain tumour nurse suggested I go to Weston Park Support Centre and Cavendish, so I did both.
From my first visit to Cavendish I felt very welcome, and had an assessment with Mick. I learned that you might think you know what you want, but you’re in uncharted territory. I asked for counselling, but with Mick’s guidance I realised this might be too intense and emotional for me at that time.
I was never made to feel as though I didn’t know what was best for me – I was just talked through the different therapies on offer, and guided towards the right one for me. Mick suggested therapies to help me cope with my immediate challenges – my feelings of panic and distress around my diagnosis, my treatment, and the thought that I didn’t have long to live.
My treatment, described as palliative, involved eight months of chemotherapy, and six weeks of radiotherapy. I was dreading the radiotherapy; I’d had a mask fitted to my face that would be clipped down to the treatment table. This was just to be sure the radiotherapy hit my tumour cells, but the prospect was very frightening. I was also anxious about the damage caused by the treatment, which could affect my sight, hearing and pituitary gland. I had therapy with Clare, who taught me helpful coping techniques. I went through my radiotherapy sessions every day for six weeks, breathing slowly and deeply and holding the fingers of each hand in turn to take my attention away from my brain. With this and the kindness of the radiologists, I managed to get through all my radiotherapy sessions without panicking or getting upset.
One of the things I really appreciate about Cavendish is its connection to conventional healthcare. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, there’s so much contradictory advice. I was quite content to put myself in the hands of Weston Park Hospital, but when I looked online there were so many articles saying ‘throw the medicine away.’ One of the ‘cures’ I read about involved cottage cheese and linseed oil. It all seemed quite dangerous, but at Cavendish I’ve always felt safe.
You can put your trust in the therapists, because they take care of people with cancer every day.
At one point, I expressed an interest in Herbal Medicine and met with a Herbalist at Cavendish. But she wouldn’t give me anything without me speaking to my oncologist first, as Cavendish don’t want anything to interfere with treatment. That support for conventional medicine was the most reassuring thing I’d heard since my diagnosis. You feel emotionally and physically safe in a time of great vulnerability, which is so important.
I completed my treatment February 2018, and it’s now November 2019. Statistically, I’m in an exceptional category, and my tumour is considered dormant. I’m not in remission, or cured; I’m scanned regularly, but I won’t be discharged because I still have cancer. That in itself is quite disorientating – the relief of not dying is huge, but the consequences of the tumour and its treatment mean that I struggle with memory, completing sequences and processing information, which can be really difficult sometimes. I’ve lost a lot of confidence and independence; I have an underlying feeling of anxiety, I’m not allowed to drive and don’t feel able to travel on my own. I was explaining this to my consultant, who suggested I return to Cavendish for more support.
I met with Mick again, who explained that last time I visited, I was dealing with the trauma of sudden illness, aggressive treatment, and a poor prognosis. Now, I was dealing with something very different – the uncertainty of living with a life-limiting illness. I’m very fortunate to be here three years after diagnosis, but I never know when my tumour will return or how I will be affected. After a few sessions of Reiki, which were really helpful and calming, Mick and I reviewed my progress. We felt I needed tools and techniques to cope with anxiety that I could use at home. I now work with another therapist on managing my emotions – I’m learning breathing techniques I can use to calm myself whenever I feel overwhelmed.
Physically, I have recovered well from my treatment and I’ve even been able to run again. I’ve been a member of Totley AC Running Club for a while, and had run marathons before my illness. This year, I decided to try to run Sheffield Half Marathon. Originally, I didn’t commit to running for a charity, as I wasn’t sure I could do it and I had to put my health first. I have to manage my effort level carefully as I’m at risk of rupturing damaged blood vessels in my brain. I intended to just make my own donation to Cavendish, but a friend encouraged me to open a fundraising page. I got this enormous swell of support, raising around £2,000! I think it’s because Cavendish has a huge amount of respect from the people of Sheffield. So many of us are affected by cancer – either ourselves or in our friends and family.
I still have Glioblastoma and I know it won’t stay dormant, but I try not to bring the troubles of tomorrow into today. Just like when I was running marathons, I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other for as far as I am able. Cavendish have been a big part of helping me to keep going on my journey, and I’m grateful every day to live in a city with such good hospitals and cancer support charities.