A trying ordeal

news: A trying ordeal

A female, non-drinking, non-smoking, 36-year-old health and fitness fanatic, is statistically one of the least likely people to get cancer of the colon. However, two years ago, director of four beauty salons in the Algarve, Jackie Vehlow suffered this massive shock, which has altered her life irrevocably. Below, she tells her story of how she fought, and continues to fight, against cancer using determination and being a ‘self-confessed control freak’.

“In September 2002, I began to feel tired, a little over-stressed and somehow different – I am normally very healthy and simply knew that something was wrong. I went along to my doctor, who did some blood tests that demonstrated nothing was wrong with me. However, because I was sometimes passing blood, my doctor referred me to a specialist for more tests. When I arrived, we went through the possibilities and, by then, for some reason, I was certain it was one of five things… one of which was cancer.

I asked for a colonoscopy and he explained that that was a last resort. However, I was not going to take no for an answer and insisted on it. People are often dubious about challenging doctors, but I decided that it was my health that was in question here and I wanted the colonoscopy.

After the examination, I had to wait 10 days for the results. That was possibly one of the hardest 10 days I have ever had – I can’t explain the feeling of anxiety and worry. So many ‘what ifs’ were going through my head and I was constantly occupied with feelings of ‘this can’t be happening – not to me’. Anyway, finally it was results day, so I went alone to the hospital and the first thing the doctor said to me was ‘are you by yourself?’ I knew then that I had cancer.

At first, I just behaved entirely practically and began thinking immediately of what had to be done and what the next step would be. My doctor was incredibly helpful and booked me in straight away for a CAT scan. It was not until I left the building and got into my car that I broke down. Little did I know, but that was to be the only time I cried during the whole ordeal. Once I arrived home, my husband, Ralph, was supportive and strong and simply said “we’ll manage, we’ll get through this.” This was what I needed to hear and we decided that, at first, until we knew the severity of my cancer, we would not tell our children – Kirstin, nine, and Nicola, 11.

Then everything began. I sought advice from so many different sources and, finally, after interviewing several colonic cancer specialists, I made my choice and was booked in for an operation to remove the tumour. I am a total control freak and, during this difficult time, when my adrenaline was keeping me going, I somehow managed to remain in control of the situation. If I could advise anybody on how to behave during the scary and turbulent times in the early stages of discovering you have cancer, it would be not to behave like a victim, do not accept anything – never leave a session with your doctor or specialist with unanswered questions.

I was told that having a tumour removed from the lower colon would, in nearly all cases, leave the patient in need of a colostomy bag. And, once I had woken from my anaesthetic, it was the first thing I felt for. To my amazement, it was not there – the surgeon had removed the tumour successfully and it was not necessary. I was told that the spread had not been large, but that I would still need some chemotherapy and some radiotherapy.

Once I had recovered from the operation, and the news, I left hospital and went straight to the nearest naturopath, who gave me hordes of pills, advice and support. Although I needed further treatment, I also made the decision to do it alongside all possible natural treatments, including diet and exercise – every little helps.

It then transpired that it was not necessary for me to have radiotherapy. This was fantastic news. And this is what is so important about Mamamaratona this year – the money raised is to pay for a nuclear centre in the Algarve, so that cancer patients don’t have to travel to Lisbon in order to have radiotherapy treatment. When I thought that I needed radiotherapy as well as chemotherapy, I realised that every month I would be spending huge chunks of time up in Lisbon, away from my family and friends. And when you feel that a timer has suddenly been put on your life, that is a frightening thought.

The next step was to get all the organs in my body into to top-notch condition. My diet consisted entirely of fruit, vegetables and water and that is no exaggeration. The Faro Hospital Oncology Unit is amazing. However, oncologists are not dietary specialists – their job is to administer the treatment. So often patients are not aware of how they can assist the recovery process through diet and exercise. I sought information everywhere that I could.

I received six months of chemotherapy and I have now been in the clear for 18 months. I have to go for six monthly check-ups for another three and a half years, but it is all about milestones and, at the moment, I am healthy and free of it.

I have feared cancer all my life and I can honestly say that that feeling has disappeared. I am, in some aspects, a very different person now. Many cancer survivors say that everything is different once you have been through it – and it is absolutely true. I wake up every morning and am so thankful that I am alive. I appreciate everything so much more.”

• Jackie has helped many people through the ordeal and trauma of cancer. If you need any advice, support or help on how to go through this physically and emotionally difficult time, give her a call on 289 394 540 or 919 386 525.