In the first week of the new year, a London hospital became the first to cancel cancer surgery as Covid-19 patients fill ICU beds. It’s feared that other life-saving procedures could also be postponed. To mark Cervical Cancer Awareness Week, Sally Berry, 33, reveals the stress of going through cancer treatment during a pandemic.
As told to Sarah Graham
The Covid crisis has already seen huge numbers of cancer patients miss out on vital treatments, tests and appointments as NHS services were suspended during the first lockdown. Now, here we are again. I feel so upset, scared and frustrated for people facing the isolation and uncertainty of cancer treatment. Last year, as the first wave of coronavirus raged, I was one of them.
We’re told all the time how important it is to go for your smear test. Now, I can’t emphasise this enough. Even if you’ve had a normal smear test recently, don’t ignore any worrying symptoms. My smear wasn’t due for 18 months when I went to the doctor in May 2019, because I’d been bleeding between periods and after sex. Cancer didn’t enter my mind, but I was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer.
Last January, I had a radical hysterectomy, with my ovaries and lymph nodes also removed. In March, I started chemotherapy. My dad came to my first appointment and the room was full. Three days later, we went into lockdown and I had to do the next three rounds on my own. I was also the only patient in the room as many treatments had been cancelled. It was such a frightening and upsetting experience, but I felt so lucky that mine was still going ahead. I was constantly anxious that it would be cancelled too.
Each chemo round was three weeks apart and I had to shield in-between, alone. My boyfriend became my support bubble. Friends and family would Zoom me during the six-hour chemo sessions while I sat in hospital alone. Loads of people sent gifts, but nothing can replace human contact, especially when you’re frightened and the world has become unrecognisable.
My mental health deteriorated, mostly because of the changes to my body. I put on weight and lost all my hair. I feel like I’ve lost every bit of femininity: my womb, my hair, my image. I also got so used to being alone that going back to work as an assistant head teacher in September was extremely difficult. I couldn’t cope with being around so many people again and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
All in all, I had to have a lot of preventative treatment. I had clear cell cervical cancer – an incredibly rare form. If I’d had a more common type, they would have just removed the tumour, but we couldn’t take the risk. Having everything removed, then chemo, was the safest option.
Losing my fertility was heartbreaking as I don’t have children and I’d only been with my boyfriend for eight months when I was diagnosed. I was able to have IVF before the hysterectomy, but they could only harvest one egg – my lucky egg – which is now frozen in hospital for me.
On my last day of treatment, in May, about 12 people came to watch (socially- distanced) as I rang the end-of-treatment bell to mark the end of this horrible chapter. Now I’m in remission and will have check- ups every three months, but I’m already anxious about whether my appointments will go ahead. My oncology appointments have been over the phone rather than face-to-face. I’m so worried about the cancer coming back that I really want to be checked physically for that reassurance.
If I was due to be starting treatment today and it was postponed, I’d be terrified of dying. Going through cancer is already stressful and isolating. Having to deal with delays on top of that is unimaginable. I hope anyone in that situation remembers that, with the vaccine, at least the end of this pandemic is hopefully in sight. To everyone else, if you ever feel like something isn’t quite right, get it checked.
Visit jostrust.org.uk for help and support