Tuesday, September 26, 2023

“I Choose to Believe Cancer Happened For Me, Not To Me” – Surviving Life After Cancer: One Woman’s Fight for a Family

We often talk about how hard fighting cancer is – but what happens after? In partnership with one of our FAVOURITE charities, Look Good Feel Better, we’re shining a light on ‘other’ tough parts of a cancer battle, including one woman’s heartbreaking journey to have a child following her cervical cancer diagnosis.

Capsule x Look Good Feel Better

TW: Cancer, miscarriage

You might think that fighting cancer would be the hardest battle you could endure.

Shona Cawley’s gruelling, two-year struggle with cervical cancer was one of the hardest things she’s had to do in her life.

We talk a lot about cancer – the treatments, the medical stuff, the chemo and the radiation. And then, there’s the after.

Of course those who get to experience life after a cancer battle are the lucky ones. But, as Shona can attest, she’s now fighting for the life she’s always hoped to live.

“Getting diagnosed, and treatment and surgeries was only the tip of the iceberg. It’s not simply about surviving cancer, it’s about surviving life beyond it, too,” she says.

“I can’t just put cancer in a box and forget about it, it’s always there in some form.”

Diagnosed with stage 2b cervical cancer, she endured five rounds of chemotherapy, 25 fractions of external radiation and then four rounds of brachytherapy (a high-dose internal radiation). 

Shona at a Look Good Feel Better class

Then, 10 months after her diagnosis, the then-34-year-old underwent major surgery – a modified radical hysterectomy and upper vaginectomy, followed by four months of post-surgery complications.

“I didn’t lose my hair or eyebrows during treatment, so a lot of my disease felt invisible. It’s all inside you, so no one really knows the huge toll it is taking,” Shona tells.

“I had finished my treatment and was starting to feel a bit better physically, but emotionally I was at my lowest point.”

So Shona attended a Look Good Feel Better class, a free session that helps people with cancer feel like a person rather than a patient, and helps to give them confidence and control whatever their stage of treatment.

“I wasn’t sure that I deserved to be there. I almost didn’t go,” she confides. “I looked normal but there was just so much going on inside. I wasn’t normal, I wasn’t myself, I wasn’t feeling good.

“It was a nice, kind, caring and comfortable environment. It was time you don’t often give yourself. And time away from all the hospital appointments that quickly became part of ‘normal’ life.”

The skincare and make-up class was held in-person on Auckland’s North Shore, and it reassured Shona that she wasn’t alone, helping her cope with the trauma of cancer.

“Going to that class made me feel less invisible. It was a super-positive day – it helped the emotional healing for sure.”

But while she bet the physical effects of cancer, it’s been the aftermath that’s almost been harder to deal with for Shona.

Soon after treatment she met someone special – and that’s when her health history truly started to wreak havoc on her happiness. It wasn’t until the second date with Campbell that she felt comfortable even talking about cancer.

“In Campbell’s family there had been a lot of cancer, so he was almost like, ‘yeah, that’s happened to people in my life’. He wasn’t too fazed.”

As they grew more serious Campbell said he would be by Shona’s side no matter what, and they started thinking about having a child.

Shona had frozen eggs prior to treatment and was humbled when her cousin offered to be her surrogate, and they embarked on the prolonged process of ethics approvals and psychological assessments. However none of the embryos were viable.

Shona then had a second round of IVF in a final attempt to use her own but that too was unsuccessful. Then Shona’s sister offered to be her egg donor. Only one of several rounds of transfers worked, but she miscarried.

“At that point, both my cousin and my sister were in their forties, so it was the end of the road for them,” Shona says.

During their fertility fight, Shona and Campbell had decided to move out of Auckland and embrace the small-town life in Snells Beach and Shona, realising she was no longer fulfilled in a corporate role post cancer treatment, re-trained as a Pilates teacher, opening her own business, The Movement Room, soon after.

“I realised I wanted to help others who were going through what I had been through. After treatment I asked my oncologist what exercise she would recommend, because the radiation to my pelvis made me concerned about brittle bones. She recommended yoga and Pilates.”

Reminded of how therapeutic Look Good Feel Better had been, Shona offered to host weekly gentle Pilates classes as part of the charity’s range of online wellbeing sessions.

“Look Good Feel Better made me feel like a person again, not just a patient. I want to help others feel they’re important too. Pilates classes are gentle and something positive you can do when you have cancer. It’s movement and awareness of the body, but it’s also movement and awareness of the mind.

“These classes aim to help people with cancer feel empowered and serve as a reminder to give themselves self-compassion and grace, much like all the other elements of Look Good Feel Better.”

Being cancer-free is something Shona is incredibly grateful for. However she and Campbell were dealt another blow last year when Shona had to have surgery for a suspected ovarian tumour. The surgery was to remove both of Shona’s ovaries, putting her into instant surgical menopause. The 10cm a non-cancerous cyst was caused by adhesions from previous abdominal surgeries. 

Then, 10 days after Shona’s surgery, Campbell’s sister passed away from cancer. “We were dealing with so much, all at once. But I try to remain positive.”

Shona’s story is still ongoing. She’s still determined to have a child.

“I never would have thought I’d be 41 and looking for an egg donor and a surrogate to create the family that often comes so easily to so many – though I know there are many it doesn’t come easily to also.

“It’s not about moving on, it’s about moving forward. It’s acknowledging where you’ve come from and what it has taken to get there, rather than shutting the door or sweeping things under the carpet. I choose to believe cancer happened for me, not to me.

“I’m proud of how far I’ve come.”

Look Good Feel Better offers a range of free support programmes for anyone with any cancer at any stage. Through public donations they are able to offer a range of in-person and online classes including skincare and make-up sessions, on-demand how-to videos, livestreamed Q&A discussions and wellbeing classes covering gentle exercise, mindfulness and yoga, through to a suite of Cancer Conversations podcasts.

July is Feel Better Month. Visit Farmers in July and make a purchase from more than 20 beauty brands, and they’ll donate $1 to Look Good Feel Better – and Farmers will match it.

Look Good Feel Better in numbers

  • 41 centres across New Zealand have in-community women’s classes
  • 12 online programmes include a men’s programme, livestream self-care classes such as Pilates and mindfulness
  • 38 on-demand, how-to videos
  • 3,500 engagements in a women’s, men’s or teens’ class in 2022
  • 32 years in New Zealand

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