Cassie Burns struggled to return to normal life after coming to terms with worries about her physical changes and fear that her ovarian cancer would return
Image: DAILY MIRROR)
Like many women with the diagnosis ovarian cancer, it was gastro issues that prompted Cassie Burns to seek medical attention in July 2019. Her GP’s prompt response meant that Cassie was treated promptly and “completely safe” in December 2019.
For the casual observer, everything ran smoothly: Cassie then landed her dream job in health and social care, moved in with her devoted boyfriend, and had options so that she could have children one day. But in reality, she was still in turmoil.
“A few weeks after my last chemotherapy session I had a scan and there was no sign of any” cancer — it was gone,” says Cassie, 31, who had a cyst the size of a large watermelon on her ovary, which turned out to be early stage 1 ovarian cancer.
“I felt numb, despite the celebration. For about two years I told myself that my cancer was a small hiccup in my life that I just had to get over. Only now do I realize how much of an impact it has had on me. I keep wishing I was the person I was before and find it hard to accept the person I am now.”
It’s a story that the Macmillan Cancer Support staff know all too well.
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“We find that people often need just as much emotional support when they are recovering as they do at diagnosis or during treatment,” said Rebecca Stead, Service Knowledge Specialist at the charity.
“The aftermath affects people in different ways. Some mistakenly think that they should feel happy or relieved, celebrate the ‘going back to normal’ and focus on the future.
“However, we find that survivors can feel isolated after treatment has ended, when they don’t have that ‘bubble’ of health care and support.
Or they may feel guilty about the impact of their cancer on loved ones and compare themselves to patients with incurable cancer or those who did not survive. Many worry that the cancer will come back after treatment.”
Unrest in this way is known to trigger fear and is something Cassie, from Sheffield, has experienced.
“I’m having some really gloomy and anxious days,” she says.
She even avoided her parents because she felt guilty for putting them through such a difficult time.
“I get pretty paranoid when I feel a sting and think the cancer may be back.”
Psychologist Simone Ruddick, who works with Perci Health, the UK’s first virtual cancer clinic (percihealth.com), says this is far from uncommon.
“All people affected by cancer will experience some degree of anxiety,” she says.
“Half of all people living after cancer struggle with the fear of cancer coming back. It is important to understand your personal triggers. Are there situations that generate anxiety, such as a follow-up scan? Or can you notice ruminating thoughts that dominate anxious feelings?
“Learning to recognize these triggers will help you recognize them when they arise and use techniques like CBT or mindfulness meditation to alleviate them.”
The lingering physical effects of cancer can also be underestimated.
“There can be visible signs like hair loss, changes in a person’s weight, and scarring,” Rebecca says.
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“But there are also non-visible signs, such as fertility problems, changes in libido, fatigue and gut problems, which can have a major psychological impact.”
Cassie even started to avoid going out with friends because of her anxiety and changes in her appearance.
“I was lucky that I didn’t lose all my hair during chemotherapy, but I lost chunks and because it was uneven I had to cut it short. I also got two stones, lost muscle mass and my body shape and metabolism completely changed so I can’t move the weight.”
These changes often leave survivors feeling very alone.
Nevo Burrell, Perci Health image consultant and stylist, says: “Peer-to-peer support is often key here because when you experience something as a result of a treatment, you can guarantee others that it is there too. You can always contact your oncology nurse or a cancer imaging expert for advice.”
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Charity Look Good, Feel Better offers online workshops for strengthening body image after cancer (lookgoodfeelbetter.co.uk).
Rebecca recommends that people continue to talk to their cancer team about what to do once treatment is complete.
“They can highlight symptoms to watch out for, explain how to manage the side effects or symptoms of treatment, and provide ideas for getting more active and improving general health,” she says.
“Talking can be very helpful, so if you don’t want to open up to family and friends, Macmillan’s specially trained Support Line advisers have no expectations and welcome open, honest conversations.
“They can also give practical advice on topics like going back to work and how to talk to colleagues, or just someone to listen to. Nothing is too big or too small.”
Cassie had counseling in the spring of 2020, but feels it was too early as she was going through a “guilt phase” of her recovery.
“I don’t think it even dawned on me that I had cancer,” says Cassie, who is now returning to therapy. “It is only now, almost three years later, that I begin to process the trauma emotionally.
“It wasn’t until after I got my new job that I realized how much toll my diagnosis had on me and how my changed appearance was affecting me. Now I’m working really hard to accept myself and come to terms with what happened. I look forward to moving on with life.”
Macmillan’s toll-free, confidential telephone line (0808 808 00 00) is staffed by trained nurses and counselors. Website be.macmillan.org.uk offers booklets on topics from body image to emotional health after cancer. Contact the charity Ovacome ( ovacome.org.uk† 0800 008 7054) about ovarian cancer
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