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  • Hannah’s Story

    May 13, 2024

    Hannah’s Story

    Your final year at university should be one of the most memorable of your life, right? For Hannah Williams it certainly was but not in the way she expected. In October 2018 Hannah, then aged 20, was enjoying the final year of her degree in Events Management and Experiential Marketing at Sheffield Hallam University, alongside working at a local pub. She noticed some bloating around her abdomen meaning her favourite jeans were suddenly too tight and some pain in her left side. After the pain became unbearable Hannah’s housemate convinced her visit A&E, where she visited the on-demand GP service. The GP undertook some basic tests and suspected that she could be pregnant.

    Hannah, who wasn’t in a relationship at the time, said; “It wasn’t possible, but because a doctor was telling me, it thought it must be true. I was shocked and upset – I didn’t feel in the stage of life where I could have a baby! The next day I visited the health clinic at the university where the doctor felt my abdomen. I was screaming the pain was as it was so excruciating. I was sent to hospital as they suspected an ectopic pregnancy, which can be very dangerous. At the hospital I had a scan but nothing could be seen in my uterus except lots of blood. I was taken into surgery so they could investigate further, where my left ovary was opened and the ‘abnormality’ which was found sent off for a biopsy. My Mum asked one of the doctors if it would be tested for cancers, and I can distinctly remember saying ‘Don’t be daft Mum, I won’t have cancer!”

    Shortly after this Hannah was diagnosed not with an ectopic pregnancy but with a Germ Cell Ovarian Tumour. These tumours begin in the ovarian cells that develop into eggs. They are rare and most commonly occur in younger women under the age of 30. This type of tumour increases levels of HCG (Human chorionic gonadotrophin) which is a hormone produced by the placenta during pregnancy, which explained the positive pregnancy tests that Hannah had received.

    Hannah’s parents were with her when she was diagnosed and she vividly recalls the meeting; “The doctors were explaining about my cancer but all I could hear was white noise. I didn’t think too much about myself, I was just so worried and upset about the effect on my parents and my sister. I was in total shock; I didn’t take anything in.”

    The first step in treatment for Hannah was having her left ovary removed in November 2018 followed by optional preventative chemotherapy, due to start in January 2019. Luckily, she was able to have treatment to stimulate her remaining ovary to produce more eggs, which were removed and frozen in December of that year. This means that Hannah will be able to have IVF in the future should she wish to have children of her own.

    “I felt really positive about that part of it”, said Hannah. “They couldn’t guarantee I’d be able to have children after chemotherapy so I was lucky to be able to harvest some good quality eggs for the future. It’s a good thing that we acted quickly with the eggs, as unfortunately my ‘preventative’ chemotherapy quickly became essential after scans revealed that the cancer had spread to some abdominal fluid during my earlier surgery.

    “My chemotherapy was called BEP Chemotherapy, after the three drugs involved – bleomycin, etoposide and cisplatin. I had it on the Teenage Cancer Unit at Weston Park Hospital in Sheffield, where the whole team and facilities were incredible. It involved 10 hours of chemotherapy every day for three days, then a top up once a week for 2 weeks. The cycle then begins again. I had 3.5 cycles, finishing in March 2019. I wish I’d known about Cavendish Cancer Care at this stage, as I would have had hypnotherapy for needle phobia. I had some bad experiences at the hospital getting cannulas in and in the end had to opt for a PICC line to deliver my drugs.”

    Hannah kept a log of how she felt on each day and records feeling depressed, tired and emotional at points during her journey but also remembers some good times too. Her spirits were kept up by visits from university friends, family and fun days out when she felt up to it. She remembers trying to remain as positive as possible, and especially remembers the cast of Strictly Come Dancing visiting the cancer ward. Like many people, Hannah struggled with her feelings around the loss of hair that is a common side effect of chemotherapy.

    “My hair was a big part of my journey” she recalls. “After diagnosis I’d cut my long hair short and donated it to another amazing charity – The Little Princess Trust. I was never fearful of losing my hair, but it was an emotional shock once it started to come out in my hand in the shower. A lot harder than I’d expected. It came out quickly and a lot at a time too. In late January I decided to shave it off and a fabulous friend, James, also shaved his head in solidarity, it was an emotional but wholesome day. I tried headscarves and some terrible wigs, but I felt most comfortable and confident with a bald head, which surprised me.”

    After 122 hours of chemo Hannah’s treatment ended on March 9, 2019, and she had a big 21st birthday party to look forward to in May, but not before a blood clot almost put her health (and her party!) in jeopardy. In April she received the good news that there were no active cancers in her body, and she could try to resume her life as before.

    Hannah continues; “It was at this stage that I felt like I needed some help with my mental health. Everyone thought ‘Oh she’s better now’ and I was cured of cancer, however I wasn’t the same as before. I’d been through a lot, and I found resuming normal life difficult. I suffered with lack of confidence and a fear of any abdominal pain being the cancer returning. However, I did manage to finish my degree course in 2020 and also met my boyfriend, Dan.”

    Hannah did an internship in fundraising at Cavendish Cancer Care, and following this was later offered a permanent position at the charity in 2021.

    “I absolutely love working for a charity which helps people affected by cancer, and I feel my own experience really helps me empathise on a deeper level with our clients,” says Hannah. “When I found out all that Cavendish offers, I was gutted I’d not accessed the service during my own treatment – it would have helped so much. However, as a staff member, I had hypnotherapy with one of the therapists to work on my fear of reoccurrence and we did some work around body issues related to the amount of internal scans I’d had and traumatic medical procedures. I still use the audio recordings from my hypnotherapy sessions even now.”

    Hannah has just had the five year all clear from her consultant and continues to thrive in her fundraising role at Cavendish Cancer Care.

    She says of her experience of treatment at Cavendish; “I wish I’d reached out sooner, it could have helped me and my family so much. I’d say to anyone to find out what we do and bear us in mind for the future. Hopefully you won’t need us, but you never know. I didn’t think I’d have cancer at 20, but I did, and I got through it. However somewhere like Cavendish Cancer Care would have made an incredibly difficult time more bearable for me and for my family.”