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Rachel Owen, My Story, Gynaecology Oncology supporter

My story starts at Christmas 2012, when I was 43. Up to then I’d been extremely well all my life, pursuing my passion as a busy instrumental teacher and performer. I suddenly had a leg infection, similar to those experienced by elderly people. My GP believed it was caused by a skin condition I have. However, it recurred in August 2013. Around this time, I noticed that I was putting on weight and by October I realised something was wrong. My tummy was bloated, I felt like I was wearing tight jeans all the time and I was experiencing pain, like a severe stitch, when I walked. My GP sent me immediately to my local hospital in Chester. There it was revealed that I had a large ovarian cyst and it was resting on an artery, restricting blood flow to my leg, hence the infections.

I was referred to Liverpool Women’s Hospital for the operation to remove the cyst, as I was told that they have the relevant expertise should there be any complications. A few days later, by now in a lot of pain and very unwell, I arrived there feeling daunted by the unfamiliar hospital and what faced me there. The moment the car drew up, the porter saw me struggling, rushed forward with a wheelchair and personally took me and my relatives all the way down to the gynae clinic. That was my first taste of the ‘LW family’ and the care and consideration I would go on to receive from so many members of staff in their respective roles.

The next encounter was exceptional. This was my first meeting with my surgical oncologist, Mr Robert Macdonald. How do I describe this special man? I have never met with such extraordinary kindness, compassion, empathy, professionalism and, of course, wonderful skill. I knew immediately that I was in both safe and kind hands and I could let go of my anxiety and let him look after me.

Mr Macdonald told me that it would be necessary for him to perform a complete hysterectomy. As a single lady who hadn’t found ‘Mr Right’ and had a family, it was hard to absorb in an instant that time had run out and I’d never be a mum. But I knew that it had to be done without delay. Acceptance would have to come later. I was admitted two days later and spent four days on the ward. I encountered so many amazing staff during this time, but certain memories stand out. A kind, reassuring anaesthetist. Mr Macdonald coming to the ward with the trolley and personally wheeling me to the operating theatre. A kind nurse who calmed me before the op and came in as my chaperone. The gentle, attentive, thoughtful care of the HDU nurse all the following night. The nurses on the ward patiently helping me get back on my feet (very slowly!). The cheerful tea lady and cleaners.

Recovery went well for two weeks. I remember texting my friend in triumph because I’d walked about 100 yards in each direction from my house! And I felt quite proud I could walk down the corridor to Mr Macdonald’s room on my own for my review. Unfortunately, he had some dreadful news for me. Stage 3 cancer had been found in my ovaries. Thanks to his skill, all obvious signs of disease had been removed, but a course of six chemotherapy sessions was recommended. Somehow, I hadn’t allowed myself to think about this possibility. (I remember leaving the Women’s afterwards thinking ‘I’m a cancer patient’ – much like someone might struggle to say the words ‘I’m an alcoholic’). I was introduced to another special member of staff at this point, Macmillan nurse Chris Webster. This is a lady with a calm and serene nature. In the midst of my mental turmoil at the news, Chris made it all seem normal and manageable. Our subsequent chats on the phone, talking about practical as well as emotional things, empowered me. I’d never have imagined I could have an almost normal life while experiencing cancer.

I was referred to Dr Green’s team and had my chemo at Clatterbridge for the next five months. I was lucky enough not to be really ill from the treatment and with a rather glam wig in place, I was able to return and teach my lovely pupils almost full-time. I experienced kindness and helpfulness from all my schools, pupils’ parents and other cancer survivors in my life (some I’d not even known had been there too) who made a point of seeking me out to offer support. One stand-out moment was when a previously rather stroppy teenage student turned up for her first lesson back holding a cake she’d baked for me! It was all strangely enriching and life-affirming.

At first I didn’t dare look ahead more than the three weeks to the next scan or review. Once that was over each time, I felt like I’d been given a licence to live for another three weeks. With the treatment over, however, the reviews became further apart, all went well and I was completely discharged in March 2017.

So, why do I enjoy going back to Liverpool Women’s? Of course, I owe my life to this amazing hospital and the amazing people who work there and I am always conscious of that in everything I do now. The staff may say they were just doing their jobs. None of them could change what they had to do to save me or change what I had to go through. But what an immeasurable difference it made to my experience that they gave me such care and compassion during the challenging and emotional journey back to health. I am keen to show my gratitude by raising funds for the Gynae Oncology Fund whenever I can, to support the hospital’s research work and additional services. I’ve completed the Wirral Coastal Walk twice, done a bit of bucket-shaking and played some favourite flute numbers in the lobby. All very small gestures but done with the greatest of pleasure. The lovely fundraising ladies, Lisa and Nadia, offer their help and encouragement for any fundraising project, however humble, so I guess it’s a case of thinking cap on again and watch this space!

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