I was lucky enough to interview one of my best friends for today’s post, Franky.
Franky and I met at university around four years ago now and quickly became very good friends. She is an absolute ray of sunshine and a huge inspiration to me.
Here she shares some of her story from being diagnosed with cancer at 17, living with cancer and all the wonderful things she’s done since. She is an extraordinary woman and she’s only 23 so what kind of superhuman goddess will she be in ten years time or twenty or fifty? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to see!
Could you tell us a bit about yourself
I’m a Gibraltarian (I live in Gibraltar), I’m a twenty-three year old English teacher and I really enjoy my job. When I’m not teaching you can probably find me in the kitchen baking, helping out at the girl guides, working out or reading.
Could you share some of your cancer story?
When I was about 16 I started noticing that my periods were extremely heavy and I would bleed for most of the month without a break.. With that came constant tummy aches and pains and I didn’t feel like myself. I went to the GP to see if they could do an ultrasound or give me guidance, but I kept getting told it was normal and that I’d just be a woman who suffered with heavy periods. I didn’t know any better so I went home and carried on with my life.
But the pain and bleeding continued and it wasn’t until quite a few months later that I went back to the doctor to get some more guidance, as if you had seen the amount of blood I was bleeding honestly it wasn’t normal! They tried to put me on the pill or iron supplements, but nothing was working.
I went for an ultrasound and they found something that wasn’t normal so I went for an MRI and that’s where they saw a tumour just under the size of a tennis ball in my uterus.
After that I had a biopsy, well I had three in total, two in Gibraltar and one in the UK and all three came back negative. So there were no answers to why this was happening or what it could be.
I finally went for the fourth biopsy and that was the one that came back positive. It revealed that I had sarcoma, which is a very rare form of cancer, in my uterus.
Everything happened really fast after that. The biopsy results came back in February then at the beginning of March I was flown back to the UK to the Royal Marsden and I underwent a hysterectomy.
I was only 17 at the time of the hysterectomy, but thankfully I didn’t have to have any chemo or radiotherapy. I had to have treatment but it was in the form of hormone injections to keep my ovaries stimulated. My ovaries kept working and I had treatment for about three years.
During this time I was doing my A-levels, I went to university but I still had to keep going with the treatment and it’s now been six years since my operation in 2014 and I’m feeling good, healthy.
How did you feel after the initial diagnosis and the hysterectomy?
At first it felt surreal, like I was in a dream.
You don’t really think that you’ll ever be told that you have cancer, you always think that that is like the last resort, it cannot be that, I’m so young.
Also I wasn’t aware of women’s gynecological cancers at the time; I didn’t know what womb cancer was. I was probably quite naive, but my friends were the same, we’d only really heard of the more common types of cancers, breast cancer, brain cancer etc.
So when my Mum told me it was a massive shock. I was in disbelief, but I think I dealt with it quite well as I had a really good support network surrounding me. I’m really close with my friends and my family – I have a really big family and they helped me through it.
I think it was hard just being so young and having to come to terms with it.
It’s not like you get cancer and then you have the operation and that’s the end of it, you kind of have to live with it forever.
I try to let it not take over my life or my thoughts as it’s very easy to let that happen, so I try to see the positives and i think I have been good at doing that. But there are still things that you have to confront along the way.
Even now five or six years later I’m still kind of dealing with getting my health back and my body back to how it was pre-cancer. While I was taking the hormone treatment I put on around 10 kilos as I was injecting hormones into my body every month so everything doubled in size. So I’m still working on my health and working on my fitness – it’s a process but I feel good now so I’m happy.
In what way has having and surviving cancer shaped your life?
Ever since my diagnosis I’ve made it my mission to raise as much awareness as possible for women’s cancers, as, as I said I had no idea that they existed and also that it could happen to someone so young.
All the research that I did around womb cancer specifically, said that it occurred to post-menopausal women so older women in their 50’s and 60’s. I’m not really aware of anyone else being diagnosed with womb cancer who was as young as me as it’s very rare.
I’ve been doing a lot of charity work. I’ve been involved with the Eve Appeal to just try and get my story out there in the hope of raising awareness and helping other people.
It could have been so easy for me to take the doctor’s advice and go on the pill and just kind of deal with the fact that I’d have heavy periods. But I knew deep down that something wasn’t right. If something doesn’t feel right,, go and get it checked out.
All the perseverance was down to my Mum. Maybe I would have said she was annoying at the time, checking up on me everything I went to the toilet, asking how much blood there was today and this and that. But she was the main force behind me going to see the doctor. Then she demanded that I get the MRI done and demanded that I be sent to the UK, otherwise we wouldn’t have known.
I was 16 at the time and I was embarrassed about speaking about blood and periods and saying the word vagina, but that’s normal. As women we have to go through that, every woman does, so it’s important to make it less of a taboo subject.
Where do you find or take your strength from?
At the beginning, I think I relied loads on family and friends.
Also just trying to think positively, I knew that I had cancer and I knew that I would have to have this life changing surgery and it was life changing, but just trying to see the positive things. You know how they always say, someone is fighting a harder battle than you, I really do believe in that.
Yes, my journey has been tough and it was obviously tough at the time, but I knew that there were people probably going through worse things than me, so I was grateful that I was alive and that I didn’t have to have chemo as I knew that could have made things a lot more challenging for me.
I also knew that I had my family and friends and the best team taking care of me. I tried to find my strength from speaking to different people too. I wasn’t so open at the time. I think maybe after a year, I started speaking about it, but I think that if I had kept all my thoughts and feelings bottled in, I would be in a much worse position than I am now. I think speaking about it has normalised it for me.
My friends and I are quite open with each other, which is really good. We’ve made it a normal thing to talk about our issues especially relating to our health.
How has this changed how you feel about having children in the future?
I remember that the first thing my Mum said to me when she broke the news to me was “Franky, you know what this means?” and I was like “what?” (as I didn’t know anything about womb cancer) she was like “you’re never going to be able to carry a baby.”
And I think that was the thing that hit me the most.
Gibraltar is such a close knit community; I live two minutes away from all my family, I have loads of little cousins and I am a family girl. I’ve always loved spending time with my baby cousins and I’d always pictured myself being a Mum and having a big family and that was all taken from me (if you want to say that) as I knew I would never be able to have my own or carry my own.
That has definitely been the hardest thing I’ve had to come to terms with after my diagnosis. The weight gain, the mood swings and the hot flushes, all of that I could deal with, but the fact that I could never carry my own baby, that is the thing that has really stayed with me and probably affected me the most mentally and emotionally.
Yet after doing research I’ve learnt that there are so many different avenues I could take. I always say I’m so thankful for all the advances in science and technology as even though I might not be able to carry my own child, I will still be able to have my own biological child.
Last summer my Mum and I went to London and I had my eggs harvested. It was a long process but I prepared myself for about 9 months beforehand. I was really excited to have that done and close that chapter in my life. Even though I don’t have a partner at the moment and I didn’t have a partner then, I still wanted to do that for me. I thought it was something really important that I do for myself so that when the day comes where I do have a partner and we do speak about the future, I’ll already have that done. I won’t have to revisit that.
I think that at first I was scared about the future as I’m quite a planner and a perfectionist and I obviously wanted everything planned out in my life like get married, have a baby, this and that and obviously that all went out of the window after the diagnosis.
But I think if I hadn’t taken that step last summer though it would have always been in the back of my mind like my eggs aren’t frozen, what if I don’t have any eggs in 10 years time? what if it doesn’t work? I know now that it’s done and sorted and I can come to it whenever I need it.
I’ve always been open to adoption, I think from a young age. I’ve done a lot of research into it, I follow loads of adoptive mothers on Instagram and social media, I’ve read loads of different books so I’m definitely open to that option. I’m living in uncertainty now as I don’t know what is going to happen in the future.
I don’t know how my kids are going to come to me if it’s going to be by adoption or surrogacy, I literally don’t know. But I think that’s what makes it exciting.
That’s what makes my story unique from everyone else’s and that’s what I’m taking from it.
What piece of advice would you give anyone living with cancer?
Speak to people that you can confide in, your family, friends whoever it might be for you. Be open about your feelings.
I’m the kind of person (and I’ve learnt this since) that would always put on a brave face, not just for myself but for those around me. I would think I don’t want my mum to see me upset, so I’m going to smile, or I don’t want my friends to think I’m uncomfortable so I’m just going to smile.
I’ve learnt that it’s better to be truthful and honest. So also don’t lie about how you feel and speak up about it.
How do you feel now, looking back on that time?
It feels really surreal. Sometimes my Mum and I have chats like remember when that happened, or we look at pictures from 2013 and I’ve forgotten so much of it as it happened in such a short space of time; there were so many complications, doctors appointments, scans, blood tests.
I feel really proud that I’ve come this far, that I’ve been able to use my story and share it in the hope of helping other people. I always think about the quote “I am not what happened to me, I am what I chose to become”.
I don’t let my illness or the cancer define me. I know it was and still is a big part of my life, but it won’t be what defines me.
Living with cancer, it’s been tough, but now I think I’ve got to the point where I’ve been able to separate myself from that. I’m never going to forget what happened and I still sometimes have flashbacks of everything that I’ve gone through. Yet at the same time I can go and live my life as normal and be grateful and thankful that I’m able to tell my story.
In the six year since then, what have you done?
When I was diagnosed I was doing my AS exams and I was given the option to repeat the year, or take the year out and I was very strong willed and I didn’t want to do that.
I wanted to go to uni at the same time as my friends, I wanted to share the experience with them. Then being at university away from my family, my best friends, having my treatment and having to go alone too helped me grow as a person.
I’m in a job that I really love now, and I’ve been travelling to Canada, New York, Croatia and so many other places.
Is there a charity that you’d like to mention that is close to your heart?
The Eve Appeal. The Eve Appeal is the only UK charity that dedicates their time to raising awareness and funds for the five types of gynaecological cancers and the support that they provide is amazing.
They have an Ask Eve service, where women can ask their questions online. It’s a really good charity.
You can read more interviews here.