A STANHOPE woman who found out she had bowel cancel thanks to a routine health check is backing a Cancer Research UK campaign to help save more lives, as the charity fights back from the impact of the pandemic.
Claire Sharp, 52, had already cancelled one medical because she was too busy, but fortunately she did attend her next appointment in July 2019 and she now credits the blood test done that day to saving her life.
Claire, who works for Northumbrian Water, said: “I’m very fortunate that my work benefits include a healthcare scheme and being able to get regular medicals. As is normal, blood tests were taken and other than feeling very tired, which I put down to having such a busy life, I was feeling fit and healthy. When in reality this couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
The blood test results showed that Claire had “almost non-existent iron levels” and she was urgently referred by her GP for an endoscopy and colonoscopy to investigate.
Claire said: “Following the colonoscopy I was told there and then that it looked 99% likely I had cancer. I was completely shocked and immediately thought I was going to die. I had further scans and a horrendous anxiety ridden wait for the results to confirm exactly what it was.
“When the scans came back they showed I had a tumour in my ascending colon and would need surgery to remove it.”
In October 2019 Claire had a right hemicolectomy, which removed the right side of her colon,
The biopsies revealed that it was a T4 tumour, which meant it had already grown through the lining of the bowel into the abdominal wall and spread into lymph nodes, but very fortunately there was no evidence of spread to any other organs.
Claire said: “The surgery went well and I’m acutely aware of how lucky I was not to need a stoma like many people in my position do. I then needed chemotherapy to blast any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy felt horrific at times, but I knew it was doing what it needed to and so put all my effort into getting through the really bad days and learn to recognise the side effects and what to expect as each cycle passed. I will be forever grateful to the NHS team at Darlington Memorial Hospital and the Mara Unit at Bishop Auckland Hospital who looked after me so well – they were all amazing and true heroes in my eyes.”
Claire began chemotherapy in December and completed it in the middle of the COVID pandemic in July 2020, all of her treatment went to plan and she didn’t face any delays.
She recorded much of her cancer experience on the social media app Instagram, using it as a way of raising awareness as well a therapeutic tool for her own mental wellbeing.
She said: “I love to write and it was very cathartic to write about my journey. It helped me focus on getting through the toughest times with some positivity and I hope helped others going through similarly experiences too. I found an amazingly supportive community who had experienced cancer themselves and having people to relate to helped me hugely during the last year.”
Once she completed her chemotherapy Claire had a follow-up scan that showed there was no evidence of cancer.
But her relief was short lived when she started to have pains in her left side.
Claire said: “I just thought the worst that the cancer had come back. What they did find after tests was a suspicious high-risk cyst on my ovary. It was another roller-coaster of emotion. I opted to have a preventative full hysterectomy instead of just a fallopian tube removal. Fortunately there was no evidence of malignancy.
“Recovery from this surgery was very tough. Even though I had chosen this route and was still happy with that decision, it emotionally felt like a part of me being a woman had gone and it was physically and mentally a tougher recovery.”
Now Claire is in remission from bowel cancer and has check-ups every six months.
Claire said: “I’m a great believer in finding silver linings, and while I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, it has given me a very different outlook on life and what really matters. When you’re uncertain of your future, every day becomes extra precious and sometimes we can be too busy to realise that.”
Now fit and well and nearly a year on from completing her bowel cancer treatment, Claire wants to pay tribute to the researchers, doctors and health professionals who supported her through her cancer journey.
She said: “Without research I’m acutely aware I wouldn’t be alive today. Having cancer made me reflect so much on my mum who died of bone cancer in 1992. I truly believe if she had access to the treatment options that are available today it would have made such a difference. I feel a real sense of duty to help support this life-saving research for people who might need treatment now and for future generations like my nieces and nephews.”
Claire is highlighting a powerful new short film from Cancer Research UK, which underlines how everyone has a part to play in the fight against the disease.
It features the rallying call to arms: “One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime*. All of us can support the research that will beat it.”
It’s a sobering statistic, but Claire hopes her story will inspire people to make a difference and become a part of the solution to this devastating disease.
Claire, who helped raise £10,000 as part of Cancer Research UK’s Dryathalon challenge, added: “I’m so grateful to have received care throughout the pandemic as sadly many people didn’t with devasting consequences. It’s given me more precious time with my loved ones that I’ll be forever thankful for. As a result of the pandemic, cancer is as urgent an issue now as it’s ever been. With so many people affected, we’re all in this together, so I hope that people come together and play their part. Every action – big or small – helps Cancer Research UK to ensure more people like me survive.”
In the North East, around 16,700 people are diagnosed with cancer every year**.
Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, Cancer Research UK’s work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has been at the heart of the progress that has seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.
Lisa Millett, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for the North East, said: “We are so grateful to Claire for her support. COVID-19 has hit us hard, but we are more focussed than ever on our ambition of seeing 3 in 4 people survive their cancer by 2034.
“This past year proves, more than any other, the value of research and what can be achieved together. Just like science is our route out of the pandemic, science is our route to beating cancer.
“That’s why we want to harness the ‘people power’ of our incredible supporters, because the progress we make relies on every hour of research, every pound donated and everyone who gets involved.
“So, whether they give £2 a month, sign up to Race for Life, volunteer at our shops or pledge to leave a gift in their Will – with the help of people in the North East we believe that together we will beat cancer.”
Play a part in supporting life-saving research at cruk.org.