August 3, 2023
Sarah Clarke, from Sheffield, ran a half marathon in 2017 and was training for the Round Sheffield run when she noticed that she was becoming breathless and struggling with her usual training routine. She had tightness in her chest and a persistent dry cough. Having visited her GP, she was referred to hospital for further tests. In July 2017 the unthinkable happened – the fit, healthy 37-year-old mum of two young children was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer.
“It was unbelievable”, said Sarah. “As a keen runner and a non-smoker I was the last person you’d expect to have lung cancer. When I saw an oncologist, I was diagnosed with Non-small Cell Lung Cancer with metastasis to my lymph nodes so the prognosis didn’t look great. All I could think of was how I would tell the children and my parents; I had no idea how to handle any of it. One minute I was a working mum and the next I was trying to figure out how to tell my kids that I might die.”
A new immunotherapy treatment was recommended for Sarah, which she undertook in summer 2017. However, by September it was clear that the treatment had not had the hoped for effect and chemotherapy was suggested as a next step. In the meantime, Sarah began to suffer from pericardial effusion, which is a build up of fluid around the heart and is symptomatic of the spread of cancer. Before her chemotherapy could begin, Sarah had two surgeries to drain fluid from her heart and had keyhole heart surgery to correct the condition.
“I finally began the chemotherapy in December 2017 and was treated over 3 cycles with Pemetrexed and Cisplatin, some of the strongest chemo drugs. I was really ill with it, it was horrendous. I can only liken it to feeling like I had one of the dementors from the Harry Potter story sucking out my soul. When the chemo finished, I then began a course of radiotherapy so that was how I started 2018.”
Later scans revealed that she’d had a mixed response to the chemotherapy and in 2018 Sarah entered palliative care with no further treatment options available. In Summer 2018 Sarah enjoyed a cruise with her family and friends, although at that stage she was struggling with anxiety and the obvious challenges of facing the end of her life at such a young age. Unfortunately, there were even more trials to come for Sarah as she started to experience problems with speech, forgetfulness and using her left hand.
“I was diagnosed with a brain tumour in November 2018,” continues Sarah. “It was a metastasis from my original cancer, which is very common in lung cancer patients. My tumour was around the size of a walnut, and I was operated on the same day I was diagnosed.”
Six weeks later another brain tumour was discovered, and Sarah was offered Stereotactic Radio Surgery – a highly-concentrated dose of radiation to a precise target in a single session. After a further surgery to remove fluid build up from the brain, she was struggling with the effects of her surgery and couldn’t bear loud noises. One morning in the New Year of 2019 she was unable to move and it was decided to move Sarah to hospice care at St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield. A further surgery and hospital stay followed as she had developed an infection and since there was no space at the hospice, Sarah retuned home and the prognosis wasn’t good. Devastatingly, she was told she was unlikely to see her 39th birthday, in April 2019.
“At the point I was given 6 weeks to live, it was kind of a relief to be honest. I was living in a constant state of fight or flight and now I could just stop. I spent my time making videos for the children, writing cards for future birthdays that I would miss and I planned my funeral. I was appreciative of the life I’d had but obviously it was incredibly hard – for me and for everyone else.”
“My daughter, who was only 6 at the time, had lots of play therapy with Helen at Cavendish Cancer Care, which helped her so much. It was a safe space for her express herself and really helped her to prepare for my death. I’d already encountered Cavendish in 2017 when I’d had some hypnotherapy to help me with my blood phobia – and it’s a good thing I did considering the many surgeries that lay ahead of me!”
Sarah was acquainted with Tim Pryor, the then Chairman of Cavendish Cancer Care, through a friend and met with him to discuss treatment options and get advice. Tim was suffering with advanced prostate cancer himself and sadly died in June 2018.
Following the terminal diagnosis she’d been given Sarah continued to prepare for the worst however she did in fact see her 39th birthday that year, and miraculously has seen a further four birthdays since!
“I had my last medical treatment in February 2019 and wasn’t expected to live much longer after that”, says Sarah. “But somehow, I’m still here! I’m technically in remission as it’s been 5 years since my lung cancer and 4 years since my brain cancer. Scans are suggesting I have no active cancers in my body and I feel well.”
It’s been the strangest thing – preparing for your own death, accepting it even – and then still being alive! I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d lived with this looming illness for so long and then all of a sudden I needed to find a new path, a path to wellness and living again. Obviously, I’m incredibly happy to have more time with my girls but this new prognosis has thrown up its own challenges too.”
After further counselling at Cavendish in early 2023, Sarah decided not to return to her previous job but to use her experience of working in public health to train to be a transformational life coach, so she can help others get the life they want. She also works as a health coach for Hero of Health, which aims to build healthy neighbourhoods and networks to reverse chronic disease. In addition, Sarah has trained to be a Buddy with Cavendish Cancer Care, so she can use her experience to help others affected by cancer.
“I really enjoy the buddy work with Cavendish. It’s so rewarding and I really wished I’d had a buddy when I was going through my treatment. I work with people having treatment for cancer but I also work with people who’ve been bereaved by cancer too. I’ve certainly got the T-shirt when it comes to having your life turned upside down by cancer and if I can use that to help people then it’s worth it.”